San Diego Developer, Philanthropist Conrad Prebys Dies of Cancer

San Diegans are very familiar with the name of noted San Diego developer and philanthropist Conrad Prebys - he's supported causes and centers over the years from the zoo to medical research to Scripps Health

Noted San Diego developer and philanthropist Conrad Prebys passed away on Sunday at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego following a courageous battle with cancer, his family said.

Prebys, a familiar name to the people of San Diego, could be considered one of the most generous people in the world.

The Prebys family announced his passing Monday by issuing a short statement: "Born with a giving spirit, Conrad’s deep generosity has helped strengthen and enrich the community in many important ways, including health care, medical research, music, theater, youth services, and wildlife preservation."

The Indiana native moved to San Diego in the 1960s with $500 to his name and built a career while helping to build a community.

Prebys, the owner of Progress Construction Company, was reportedly the first of five brothers to graduate from college.

At 7, Prebys stepped on a rusty belt buckle and suffered blood poisoning that affected his heart and left him bed-ridden for a year.

He said that experience led him to help Scripps Health establish a cardiovascular center in his name.

“The rewards, once you sample the joy of giving are, like I say, in my case euphoric,” he said in a 2011 interview with Scripps Health.

In 2012 he was named as one of the 25 most generous people in the world. The magazine reported that Prebys donated $63.1 million in 2011 and had a net worth of $125 million.

Most recently, Prebys gifted $20 million to San Diego State University to create endowments that will support at least 150 students annually. The university reported it as the single largest gift ever made to the SDSU.

In recognition of the gift, the university named its newly renovated student union after Prebys.

SDSU President Elliot Hirshman described Prebys as a "treasured friend and supporter" of the University.

"Conrad Prebys was a great man and a great spirit. He touched and ennobled everyone he met," Hirshman said in a written statement. "His contagious optimism and selfless generosity have forever changed our campus and the entire San Diego region."

Hirshman added that the Prebys name is seen on the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union, the Conrad Prebys Center for Viromics Research and the Conrad Prebys Chair for Bio-medical Research as well as on thousands of scholarships offered to students.

Among the institutions that have received gifts from Prebys are the San Diego Zoological Society, UC San Diego, Sanford-Burnham Institute for Medical Research, Salk Institute and San Diego Opera.

Scripps Health said Prebys helped in so many ways, including a $45 million gift that is the largest donation in the health system's history.

"It’s impossible to overstate the important role that he played in supporting our organization and the entire San Diego region," the statement read.

The San Diego Zoo Global said Prebys had a deep impact on many of their employees, who work everyday in the facilities that bear his name.

"Conrad loved coming to the Zoo," said Mark Stuart, president, San Diego Zoo Foundation, in a statement. "In his own words, it was a “home” for him a long time ago, when life wasn’t at its best. Conrad said he would watch the polar bears frolic in their exhibit and laugh, and laugh, and laugh."

In the statement, they said Prebys left the San Diego Zoo a much better place than he found it. 

His donations helped renovate the Polar Bear Plunge, create the world's greatest elephant care center and helped the Zoo build the largest koala exhibit outside of Australia. He was also the first donor to invest in Africa Rocks, the largest exhibit ever at the Zoo. 

At The Old Globe, Prebys made a generous donation to help rebuild the courtyard and one of the theaters.

"He loved sharing good news," said Michael G. Murphy, the managing director of The Old Globe. "He wanted people to better themselves and anything he could do to help that, he was the first in line."

Murphy said he is sad about the news because Prebys is one of San Diego's great treasures.

He loved to create a good foundation and he did that for San Diego and we're very very grateful to him and to Debbie for what they've done for all of us around town," Murphy said.

The Prebys family is asking for privacy at this time, but in a statement they said in part that Prebys was born with a giving spirit.

Prebys often suggested that those who could not afford to give money to community organizations should consider donating their time.

“You’ll feel better,” he said. “I guarantee it.”

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