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A charitable heart American Heart Association honors John Grubb with Heart of Life award


John R. Grubb’s rags-to-riches story told in his 2000 autobiography, “My Life: A Memoir,” co-written by Eileen Gannon, provides insight into one of Des Moines most illustrious business leaders. But those who know the longtime Realtor, home builder and land developer, those who attest to his character, say his philanthropic work alone warrants the publishing of another book.

On Feb. 15, the American Heart Association in Polk County will honor Grubb with the distinguished Heart of Life award during the group’s annual Des Moines Heart Ball, to be held this year at the University Park Holiday Inn in West Des Moines. A survivor of two heart attacks and a stroke, Grubb is the first non-physician to win the award. He will be recognized alongside physicians W.H. Myerly and John E. Gustafson, who performed the state’s first open-heart surgery at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in 1956.

“It’s very nice,” said Grubb of winning the award. “I don’t expect anything like this to happen. I give a few dollars away, but I don’t expect anything in return.”

The AHA award distinguishes the latest chapter of Grubb’s storied history of charitable contributions, an honor, his peers say, is merited.

“There’s no one more deserving,” said Bill Knapp, founder of Iowa Realty and chairman emeritus of Knapp Properties, who has been friends with Grubb for more than 50 years. “They picked the right man.”

In addition to receiving the group’s award, Grubb is serving as honorary chair for this year’s fund-raising event. Marcia Wanamaker, Heart Ball chair, said the AHA is recognizing Grubb for his leadership in contributing to several projects in the community.

“We give the award to somebody who embraces life,” Wanamaker said, “and John truly embraces the heart of life.”

Grubb, who spent some time in a juvenile home as a youth, has contributed to a host of children’s causes over the years. From building structures, to donating land and leading multimillion-dollar capital campaigns, Grubb has been instrumental in several projects, including the Polk County Juvenile Home, Youth Homes of Mid-America, the Lou Williams Variety Child Development Center, Good Samaritan Urban Ministries, John R. Grubb and Variety Club YMCA, the Variety Club Sunshine Trolley, Des Moines Christian School, the Convalescent Home for Children and the John R. Grubb Variety Club Children’s Health Center at Blank Children’s Hospital. He also sparked renovations at Gray’s Lake; funded the remodeling of the sub-acute care unit at Mercy Medical Center, where he was a patient following his stroke in1994; and donated $1 million in West Bancorp. stock to the Greater Des Moines Foundation.

“John has been a very successful builder and developer, and with that success, he has put a lot back into the community,” Knapp said. “He’s got a big heart and he’s probably done as much as anyone I know. He really cares about people, and he cares about Des Moines.”

In addition to his monetary contributions, those who work with him say the 85-year-old philanthropist, who still goes to work every day, isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and volunteer. This year, the AHA hopes to raise more than $225,000 and to attract more than 500 guests to the Heart Ball. Timothy Walker, Polk County division chair for the association, said Grubb’s invaluable volunteer work and networking on behalf of the organization might make this year’s goals attainable.

“Most of his support is volunteer work; it’s not like he wants to be a shining star,” said Walker. “He continues to work for us so we can continue to fund research, and to do things like help us network to get defibrillators into businesses and patrol cars. These are the kinds of things John and his family have done to help us. We need people that know people.”

“The American Heart Association is doing a marvelous job,” Grubb said. “People should get behind it.”

Walker said Grubb and the AHA are a good fit because they share the belief that volunteerism is just as important as donating money.

“I wouldn’t be president of the group if it just meant opening up your wallet,” said Walker. “A lot of my work is being a volunteer, helping to put together the Heart Ball, the Heart Walk, and that’s just as important as direct funding.

“With John winning this award, it should tell people in the community that this is a person who is important to cardiac health. He’s a wonderful survivor and a generous guy, and we thank him for participating with us.”

In his autobiography, Grubb said he had a philanthropic childhood influenced by his parents and grandparents. “We were poor, but we still gave what we could to those with even less,” he said.

Today, he said, contributing to the community “means everything.”

“He doesn’t wait for somebody to call him,” said Wanamaker. “If he sees a need he says, ‘I’ll help you.’ He’s an inspiration to myself and a lot of people.”

Knapp cites Grubb as a mentor, a person he respects for his business acumen and for the humble and generous way in which he supports the community.

“He doesn’t want people to know,” Knapp said of Grubb’s charity work. “He’s not one to seek recognition. He’s that kind of a guy. John is at peace with himself because he has been able to do well in his business and give back to the community.

“That’s why I think awards are important, because maybe it makes other people think about giving. It might set an example for other people to follow. We need more people like that.”

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