“The multiple national accolades that Greater Des Moines has received in recent years and our region’s ongoing economic growth successes are in many ways the result of Bill Knapp’s longtime, steadfast vision and leadership.”
~Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, in “The Real Deal: The Life of Bill Knapp”
The life and career of William C. “Bill” Knapp is a rags to riches story unlike that of any other Iowan. His business achievements and impact on the community and state are renowned. But while he is without question one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the history of our state. Bill’s legacy may have less to do with his business acumen and successful real estate ventures, and more to do with his extraordinary spirit and record of giving back. Much more.
Bill was a depression-era farm boy in southern Iowa where he experienced what he called “a humble childhood, but a happy one.” Only 17 years old at the time, he sought and received the necessary permission from his parents to fight “in a war we had to win” and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Bill was assigned to the USS Catron and eventually saw intense action piloting a landing craft that repeatedly hit the beach at the Battle of Okinawa, the last significant campaign in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Bill returned to Okinawa in 2015, nearly seventy years to that fateful day he fought there. He shared these reflected thoughts with Mike Kilen of The Des Moines Register: “It was pretty traumatic to see. It’s hard to explain how bad it is in war. You can’t imagine it. When you’ve been there, you can’t understand how anyone could settle anything with war. We ought to do everything on Earth before that.” The boy who had left rural Iowa out of a patriotic sense of duty returned to his native state as a man with a new outlook on life. One wherein he understood firsthand “how tenuous it could be, and we better live every day.”
After founding Iowa Realty in 1952, Bill gradually built the company into the state’s premier real estate company. Bill was at the forefront as the Des Moines skyline changed with the construction of the 36-story Ruan Center, the 25-story Financial Center and Iowa’s largest performing arts center, the Des Moines Civic Center. He was the principal dealmaker and point man on other key projects as well, including Capital Square, the Iowa State Historical Building and a 25-story luxury condominium project called The Plaza.
Bill was also a central figure in transformational projects ranging from the downtown Des Moines skywalk system to the renewal of the Drake University neighborhood, and inspirational endeavors ranging from developing a site for the Bethel Mission homeless shelter to raising money to build a new community center in support of a low-income housing project known as the Homes of Oakridge. It was around this same time that Bill received a deserved shout-out from The Des Moines Register who cited his “decisive problem-solving action that social issues crave but rarely receive.”
Tom Harkin, a retired U.S. Senator and longtime friend, once said, “Bill Knapp has always had an ‘aura,’ a ‘presence’ about him that spoke of strength and confidence, of purpose and direction, and yes, of deep feeling and compassion.” After moving to Des Moines in 1994, I saw firsthand how apt a description that was after joining The Breakfast Club, Ltd. of which Bill was also a member.
Founded in 1962, our breakfast group counted as members many of Bill’s closest friends and associates: Michael “Mick” Ferrari, President of Drake University from 1985 to 1998 and someone Bill worked with on many projects in and around the Drake neighborhood; former Governor Robert D. Ray, who also served briefly as President of Drake University; Roger Brooks, CEO of Central Life Assurance and to whom Bill had sold an 80% stake in Iowa Realty (he sold the remaining 20% stake to Central Life’s successor company, AmerUs Life, in 1989); Jack Wahling, whose McGladrey firm did much of Iowa Realty’s accounting work; Gary Kirke, who founded the former Kirke-Van Orsdel Insurance Company; Ron Pearson, Chairman Emeritus of Hy-Vee; and Jim Cownie, JSC Properties, a close friend, frequent business partner, and philanthropist in his own right.
It was honor for me to serve as president of The Breakfast Club in 2004. Though Bill resigned his membership a few years later, his attendance at weekly breakfast meetings and various social functions always made them a little more special.
After selling a majority stake of Iowa Realty to Roger Brooks in 1984, Bill formed Knapp Properties, Inc. (KPI) to develop and manage his broad commercial and residential portfolio. One of their largest endeavors was the Country Club development in 1987, owing its name to the close proximity of nearby Des Moines Golf and Country Club. This $100 million development comprised 720 acres and a man-made lake, homes, townhouses, and an office park. It ended up being Bill’s most successful residential development, and the Cole family built a home there shortly after moving to Des Moines in 1994. I once pointed out to Bill that Country Club’s eventual population of 3,000 residents far exceeded the combined population of our respective Iowa hometowns, Allerton and Kingsley!
KPI was the force behind many other successful commercial development projects as well. Among them was the sale of 136 acres to Wells Fargo in 2004 at a price of $121,000 per acre for their new campus-like office complex. Bill always had a knack for correctly anticipating where growth and development would occur. In this case, he was well positioned to take advantage of the development around the new Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines. Bill was careful to give much of the credit for KPI’s success to his two right-hand men, Gerry Neugent and Bill Knapp II. Being recognized by the Better Business Bureau with their Iowa Integrity Award speaks volumes about the confidence and trust regularly placed in KPI’s team by partnering communities and companies.
Bill once said that, “You have to do good by doing good.” It has been breathtaking to keep up with the countless ways in which Bill has shared his success and good fortune with others. Here are a few notable examples:
1992 – “Knapp Center” The aforementioned Breakfast Club had many ties to a capital campaign in support of a new multi-purpose arena on the Drake University campaign. Bill’s co-chair was Jim Cownie, with Bill himself stepping up with a lead gift of $3 million. While it took some real salesmanship on Drake University President Ferrari’s part to convince Bill that the new facility should bear his name, it was definitely the right thing to do.
1995 – “Bob Feller Museum” While recognizable figures such as legendary baseball player Ted Williams and Charles Kuralt, reporting for the CBS News Sunday Morning show, brought attention to fundraising efforts, it was Bill’s dedication to establishing a museum in Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller’s hometown of Van Meter that made all the difference. Unfortunately, the business model for the museum, relying heavily on fundraising appearances by Hall of Famers like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra, unraveled after Bob Feller passed away in 2010. The doors were closed in 2014 and reopened the following year as Van Meter’s new City Hall … with enough mementos and keepsakes left in place to tell their hometown hero’s story.
2001 – “William C. Knapp Varied Industries Building” With the impetus provided by a $1 million gift from Bill, this 1911-vintage building was renovated into a 165,000 square foot facility that is now one of the largest four-season exhibition halls in the Midwest. At the time, Bill’s gift was the largest private donation ever made to the Iowa State Fair.
2004 – “Drake Stadium” Home to the Drake Relays, this venerable red-brick venue that legendary Olympian Jesse Owens called “so uniquely right for track” was in desperate need of renovation. Bill served on the leadership team tasked with raising the $22 million needed to repair the stadium structure, resurface the track to meet international standards, install an artificial field for football and soccer, add new lighting, and make improvements to the seating, concessions, restrooms and press box. “This project is not just about Drake University – it has tremendous potential to enhance the economic vitality and the visibility of Des Moines by making the city the track and field capital of the Midwest,” said then-Drake University President David Maxwell.
2006 – “Susan Knapp Amphitheater” In a heartwarming tribute to his wife, Bill contributed $750,000 to the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation to construct a new performance stage on the Fairgrounds. “The Iowa State Fair is one of my favorite causes,” Bill said. “It showcases the talents and abilities of Iowa’s people and the quality of our products.” It was Susan, after all, who spiked Bill’s interest in the fair at the very outset of their personal relationship in 1994. They have “camped out” on the fairgrounds in a luxury RV during the eleven-day run of the fair every year since 1997. Bill once shared with me the thrill of waking up at the break of dawn to stroll the fairgrounds prior to the gates opening each day and walking through the livestock barns as young boys and girls tended to the animals and did their chores.
2007 – “Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center” Named in honor of his brother and lifelong business partner, this new facility on the fairgrounds was designed to expose urban and rural fairgoers alike to the importance of livestock production in Iowa. “The support shown by Mr. Knapp is a testimony to the respect for the rich heritage of livestock production in Iowa. It is also an opportunity for those currently involved in modern livestock production to educate all those who attend the fair about the care of animals,” said John Thomson, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University.
2008 – “Iowa Veterans Cemetery” Construction of Iowa’s only Veterans Cemetery was made largely possible by Bill’s donation of land he owned along I-80 in southern Dallas County. At the time of the dedication in July 2008, over 1,000 veterans and their dependents had been deemed eligible for burial there. It will ultimately provide spaces for more than 80,000 permanent resting places.
2010 – “Honor Flight” This special program for World War II veterans has enabled members of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” to visit the national memorial to the war they fought in. But leave it to Bill to write a $250,000 check to cover the entire cost of a chartered Boeing 747! Begun in 2008, this was the only such Iowa Honor Flight sponsored by a single individual. “I hope this will be the trip of a lifetime for many central Iowa-based World War II veterans – I know it is for me,” Bill said at the time. “Fighting for our country was one of the most important things we ever did to help assure America’s enduring freedom and liberty.” Bill and the trip’s organizers wisely recognized that time was of the essence if these deserving vets were going to have the opportunity to visit the monument.
2013 – “Meals from the Heartland” While he has given millions to worthwhile charities and organizations, volunteering in support of this hunger relief organization’s mission touched Bill’s heart in an uncommon way. He talked about the ways he was invigorated by the comradery, and the emotional intimacy that comes from working shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers alike toward a common goal: tackling hunger. The experience moved Bill to donate the land and then raise $1.9 million for the construction of an expanded packaging facility. Afterwards, Bill said, “I enjoyed working on this and being part of it, more than any other thing I’ve done.”
2015 – “William C. Knapp Emergency Department & Trauma Center at Iowa Methodist Medical Center and Blank Children’s Hospital” Bill made a commitment of roughly $5 million to support the expansion and renovation of the ER and Trauma Center at these UnityPoint Health – Des Moines healthcare facilities. His donation was the largest among those made towards the $9 million project’s goal to transform emergency, trauma and critical care in central Iowa. “Health care is one of the cornerstones of our community, and this project will help to continue the growth we have experienced and prepare us to meet the needs of future generations,” Bill said.
Bill learned early on that gaining and maintaining access to politicians would be important to his business success. Over time, he became a key power broker within the Iowa Democratic Party. It began with his close friendship with Governor and Senator Harold Hughes. Bill would also throw his support behind another friend and business associate, Ed Campbell, for what was an unsuccessful run for Governor. He would back many other political candidates in the years to follow: Congressman Neal Smith; Senators John Culver and Tom Harkin; Ed Campbell’s wife, Bonnie Campbell, who won an Attorney General race but would later lose a race for governor to incumbent Terry Branstad; Governor Tom Vilsack who succeeded Branstad in 1999; and Chet Culver who was elected to succeed Vilsack in 2007.
As was once pointed out by The Des Moines Register, Bill has “contributed more money to Iowa Democratic candidates and causes than anyone in the state.” But in one highly-publicized exception, Bill showed a willingness to put the “person” over the party. In 2014, Terry Branstad was seeking an unprecedented sixth four-year term as Iowa’s governor. Bill recognized the long-serving governor’s record of public service and, much to the dismay of many fellow Democrats, publicly endorsed and financially supported Branstad. Bill later shared with me that while he didn’t always agree with Branstad’s policies or positions on many issues, his decision to back him was ultimately made out of a deep respect for Branstad’s incredible work ethic and longstanding commitment to Iowa. As if to put an exclamation point on it, Bill later joined Jim Cownie as co-chair of the 2015 Branstad Inaugural Committee!
David Kruidenier was one of Bill’s closest and dearest friends. Their upbringings and personalities could not have been more different. David grew up in the city as a privileged member of the “blue blood” Cowles family who had large holdings in the newspaper and broadcasting business; Bill was raised on the farm by a family that struggled financially. David had an MBA from Harvard; Bill had a certificate from the American Institute of Business. David was worldly and sophisticated; Bill was provincial and rough-hewn. It was a classic case of old money meeting new money. But in spite of these drastically different backgrounds, they formed a bond on two things they did have in common: the same July 18th birthday and a deep love for the community which fueled their personal philanthropy. They would frequently travel together or hold joint parties to celebrate the former, and oftentimes worked on projects with each other to satisfy the latter.
During a Breakfast Club meeting at the old West End Diner in November 1998, I mentioned to Bill that I was traveling to Sarasota, FL later in the day for a meeting with the managers of our television stations. By coincidence, Bill and Susan were flying to Sarasota on their private plane that same afternoon for a visit to their winter home on Siesta Key. Bill graciously invited me to fly down with them. As it turned out, David Kruidenier was joining them on the trip as well. I will always cherish the conversation with Bill, Susan and David on the 2+ hour flight that day. David had a 33-year career at the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company culminating with his being named President and Publisher in 1971. At the time the company was sold in July 1985 to the Gannett Co., David was serving as Chairman and CEO. He was renowned for his recognition of the need for fiercely independent news departments. James P. Gannon, a former Editor who worked for David, said, “He was a great Publisher in supporting the news effort with needed resources and then leaving it to operate independently.” During our conversation on the plane, we talked about how the Cowles family had once owned the station where I had begun my broadcasting career, KCAU-TV in Sioux City, IA. But what I remember most was the unique opportunity to observe the warm, personal relationship enjoyed by two of the most generous leaders in the state’s history.
Bill’s professional accomplishments and generosity have led to countless honors in recognition of his contributions to his home state. Among them are the “Humanitarian Award” from Variety – The Children’s Charity of Iowa (see their WINNER profile for more), the “Distinguished Iowa Citizen Award” from the Mid-Iowa Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and Drake University’s “Distinguished Service Medal” in recognition of his dedication as a trustee. He was inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame in 1991 and named Ernest and Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” in 1993. In January 2011, Bill was only the twenty-first person to ever be presented the “Iowa Award” which is the state’s highest citizen award. His name was added to a prestigious honor roll that includes President Herbert Hoover, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Norman Borlaug, Scientist George Washington Carver, Governor Robert D. Ray, and Artist Grant Wood. It was a much-deserved recognition for an individual who epitomizes the Iowa work ethic and all that is good about our state.
The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University bestowed yet another honor on Bill in April 2022 when presenting him the Robert D. and Billie Ray Pillar of Character Award. “Bill exemplifies all that the Pillar of Character Award stands for: civility, character, and leadership,” said President of Drake University Marty Martin. “From humble beginnings on the farm, to serving his country and ultimately his success in the boardroom, Bill has lived a life of impact. He has devoted his all to bettering his community and is a true servant-leader.” It was my honor to co-chair the dinner, and interview Bill on stage as part of the presentation ceremony.
Having first met him in 1994, I didn’t know the younger Bill Knapp. Some have described the earlier version as driven, tenacious, forceful, stubborn and tough as nails. Those descriptions probably fit him to some degree as this self-made man grew a company amidst the postwar boom. And while his strong-willed side was occasionally revealed to me, Bill’s many other qualities were far more discernible: highly-principled, honest, unimpeachable integrity, unfailing veracity and loyal. Bill told me on countless occasions to treat your “word as bond” and never give another person a reason to question their trust in you.
What distinguishes Bill Knaap as one of the state’s greatest entrepreneurs is the impact he’s had on those less fortunate. Evelyn Davis, founder of the Tiny Tots Daycare Center for low-income families, wrote the following in a note to Bill in December 1986: “I can never thank you enough for being my friend. I don’t know how or why you do all you do for us and others, but I am more than glad the Lord sent you my way.” I, too, am fortunate to call him a friend … and all of Iowa can be glad the Lord sent this special person and WINNER our way.
The Real Deal: The Life of Bill Knapp by William B. Friedricks (Business Publications Corporation Inc., 2013)
“On your mark, get set…” Drake blue: The Drake University Magazine” Fall 2004: 12-16.
Press Release –
Knapp Properties, Inc. (August 12, 2010). “Bill Knapp Honor Flight to Travel to Washington D.C. on August 19” [Press Release] Retrieved from Hanser & Associates
“William Knapp” Retrieved from www.iowabusinesshalloffame.com
“The Bob Feller Museum: History and Personnel” Retrieved from www.bobfellermuseum.org
“William C. Knapp Varied Industries Building” Retrieved from www.blueribbonfoundation.org
“Susan Knapp Amphitheater” Retrieved from www.blueribbonfoundation.org
“Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center” Retrieved from www.blueribbonfoundation.org
“Iowa Veterans Cemetery” Retrieved from www.va.iowa.gov
(June 26, 2010). “Helping hand” Retrieved from www.sbnonline.com
Panfil, Sara (August 23, 2010). “Iowa Veterans Embark on the Final “Honor Flight”” Retrieved from www.vetlawyers.com
Henderson, O. Kay (December 11, 2010). “Culver & Co five Knapp the “Iowa Award”” Retrieved from www.okhenderson.com
(January 11, 2011). “Drake benefactor Bill Knapp receives Iowa’s highest citizen honor” Retrieved from www.news.drake.edu
Dalbey, Beth (June 7, 2013). “Why Bill Knapp Opened His Heart – and His Checkbook – to Tackle Hunger” Retrieved from www.patch.com
Dalby, Beth (June 11, 2013). “15 Minutes with Bill Knapp: ‘When You Die, You Don’t Take One Thing with You'” Retrieved from www.patch.com
(November 6, 2013). “Why Bill Knapp is backing Branstad.” Retrieved from www.dmcityview.com
Birch, Tommy (November 19, 2014). “Bob Feller Museum closes, will merge with City Hall” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
Boshart, Rod (December 9, 2014). “Plans for Branstad’s inauguration announced” Retrieved from www.globegazette.com
(May 14, 2015). “William C. Knapp Commits Naming Gift to Emergency Department & Trauma Center Project at Iowa Methodist Medical Center & Blank Children’s Hospital Made Possible with Donor Support” Retrieved from www.unitypoint.org
Kilen, Mike (May 21, 2015). “70 years later, Bill Knapp tells his story of Okinawa” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
Selby, Jason (September 26, 2016). “Wayne County native Bill Knapp gives back to Iowa” Retrieved from www.corydontimes.com
Last Updated: October 30, 2022