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Conrad Prebys: A Legacy of Giving

The real estate magnate was known for his generosity

Photo by K.C. Alfred

Conrad Prebys came to San Diego in 1965 with $500 to his name. After building a real estate empire with 90 properties and nearly 8,000 rental units, he amassed a fortune estimated by Forbes at $1.25 billion. The real estate titan, who died in July at 82 following a battle with cancer, was well known for his many generous contributions to the San Diego community.

Prebys was named one of the 25 most generous people in the world by Business Insider in 2012, and his wide-ranging philanthropy spanned areas such as health care, medical research, music, theater, youth services, and wildlife preservation. He contributed to the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Opera, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, the Salk Institute, The Old Globe, the Boys & Girls Clubs, UC San Diego Department of Music, and San Diego Hospice, among others.

“With his countless contributions to San Diego’s research institutions, community organizations, and the arts, Conrad not only made the San Diego community stronger, he made the world a better place,” says Mark Cafferty, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Earlier this year, the EDC honored Prebys with its Herb Klein Civic Leadership Award for outstanding leadership in addressing challenges and making significant contributions to improving the region.

In 2015, Prebys donated $100 million to the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, following previous donations totaling $11 million to support research into drugs fighting cancer and other diseases. His $20-million gift to San Diego State University in 2014 was the largest in the university’s history and created several endowed scholarships. He gave $25 million to the Salk Institute, the single largest gift to the organization’s endowment, and contributed $45 million to build the Scripps Cardiovascular Institute.

“The entire Scripps Health family is deeply saddened by the loss of Conrad Prebys,” a statement from the health care provider said. “It’s impossible to overstate the important role that he played in supporting our organization and the entire San Diego region.”

Prebys grew up in a working class neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, where most kids went to work in local factories after completing high school. As a child, Prebys developed a heart condition that left him bedridden for a year—an experience that would later inspire generous giving to health sciences and medicine.

When told by doctors that Prebys would have to live a sedentary life, his parents encouraged him to learn the piano as a way to make a living as an adult. That fostered a lifelong love of music. A high school drama teacher exposed Prebys to arts and culture, and inspired him to further his education. He was the first of five brothers to attend and graduate from Indiana University.

After working in a steel mill and running his own pizzeria, Prebys moved to San Diego at 32. He began scouting vacant lots for starter homes, using his knowledge of real estate and construction. He co-founded Progress Construction and Management and various real estate enterprises in San Diego, and was known for keeping rents affordable.

Prebys’s legacy will live on in San Diego, through the local organizations and institutions he championed, the lives he touched, and the buildings throughout the region that bear his name.

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