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Conrad Prebys says he works so that he can support his passion for giving back. Conrad Prebys says he works so that he can support his passion for giving back.
 


Passion for Philanthropy

Conrad Prebys says he works so that he can support his passion for giving back.
By Greg Block
 

In an inconspicuous building in Pacific Beach sits an unassuming man who changes lives. Instead of spending his money on lavish furniture and artwork to decorate his office, Conrad Prebys would rather give to organizations and causes that are meaningful to him.

“I had the advantage of being disadvantaged,” he said, describing his blue collar upbringing in South Bend, Indiana. “I was born with no money, but we had a happy youth.”

Prebys, who recently made a $20 million gift to San Diego State University to create student scholarships, reflects on  the challenges throughout his life and sees them as opportunities that shaped the man he became. They forged his passion for philanthropy, which has benefitted such organizations as KPBS, The San Diego Zoo, The Boys and Girls Club, The Old Globe Theatre, The La Jolla Music Society, The San Diego Opera, Scripps Mercy Hospital, Scripps Prebys Cardiovascular Center, Sanford/Burnham Medical Research Institute and the Salk Institute.

"Andrew Carnegie said ‘excess wealth is a sacred trust to be distributed for the good of the community during one’s lifetime’, and that stuck with me."

Prebys learned to play the piano at the age of 8 while recovering from a serious illness, eventually becoming somewhat of a prodigy. And while a career in music wasn’t in the cards for him, it has remained a lifelong passion. He calls classical music nourishment for his soul.

“I’m emotional about music. It’s more than just listening,” he said. “It’s experiencing the sublime for me.”  Part of his gift to SDSU will endow scholarships for students in the creative and performing arts.

Creating scholarships

“The idea of scholarships for students intrigued me, because I know how difficult it is going to college right now,” Prebys said. “Back when I was going to school, it was no big deal to work while you were going to school. Now it can’t be done, really. It’s very difficult and expensive.”

He was the first of his five brothers to attend college, graduating from Indiana University, where he participated in the  ROTC program. He considered a career in the military, but jokes that he couldn’t shoot straight. He tried his hand at the newspaper business for a while before picking up and moving west with nothing more than the clothes on his back.  Settling in California, he began working for an “on your lot” builder.  

“There were many vacant lots in San Diego,” said Prebys, now president of Progress Construction Company and Progress Management. “We were selling houses for $6,990, ‘On Your Lot’. It took a lot of learning. I didn’t even know what a house was.”

Eventually Prebys became a partner in the company, and when his partner left the business in the 1970s, Prebys became his own boss for the first time.

Working hard

“I worked hard,” he said. “But I just seemed to do it the right way, as long as I was in charge.”

He works hard to this day,  doing all the hiring at his company, which has employed dozens of SDSU graduates.

“I work every day, and when I’m not working, I’m thinking about it,” he said. “And it all goes along hand in glove with my philanthropy. I’ve got limited funds, but I try to keep working on them to make them grow so I can do more. Because I get such joy out of it.”

Last year, Business Insider named Prebys one of the 25 Most Generous People in America. He has made significant contributions in the San Diego region, and plans to continue that practice for as long as he can.

“I check myself every so often, and it appears it’s the right thing for me to do, to share this excess wealth,” Prebys said. “Andrew Carnegie said ‘excess wealth is a sacred trust to be distributed for the good of the community during one’s lifetime’, and that stuck with me.”


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