San Diego’s richest person is someone I’ve never heard of: Gwendolyn Sontheim Meyer. The Rancho Santa Fe resident owns a 7 percent stake in the family business, Cargill, a purveyor of grain and agricultural commodities with forays into financial services and a hedge fund. For a woman whose estimated worth is $4.3 billion, Meyer keeps the lowest of profiles. She lives and trains horses at her Coral Reef Ranch and is a champion jumper.
Forbes magazine, whose definitive billionaire lists are the oligarch’s equivalent of the Oscars’ red carpet, drops Meyer into their “Silver Spoon” bowl — those who did absolutely nothing to earn their fortune. All inheritance. Cargill, America’s largest private company, is independently managed but owned by two families. Forbes says, “They are richer than the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies combined.” Lord knows I’ve searched, but I can’t find any charity she supports. Maybe her giveaways are anonymous. Maybe Meyer is Scrooge McDuck. But many of the gifts of San Diego’s wealthiest donors are well known, in part, because the check-writing moment, if possible to stage, is a media event charities dream of and publicize.
Among the top local recipients of San Diego’s mega-donors are UC San Diego, the University of San Diego, and San Diego State University. Since 2000, UC San Diego has received $730.18 million in donations from all donors (individuals and foundations, nationwide) whose minimum gift is $1 million. (There are thousands of smaller contributors and contributions.) Other beneficiaries during the same time period include the San Diego Foundation ($112.35 million), the San Diego Revitalization Corporation ($72.05 million), and Rady Children’s Hospital ($60 million).
These San Diego donors listed 1–12 here are not arranged by wealth but by the most dollars donated, on occasion indirectly, to local concerns since 2000. The gifts issue from individuals, couples, or family foundations.
1. Joan B. Kroc (1928–2003)
Home: (formerly) Rancho Santa Fe
Estimated net worth: $1.7 billion
Major local donations: The San Diego Salvation Army Kroc Center in City Heights in 2002: $87 million | University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies in 2004: $50 million | San Diego Hospice and Palliative Care in 2003: $20 million
Joan (née Joan Mansfield) was the third wife of Ray Kroc, “The Founder” and CEO of McDonald’s. Ray, who called Joan his “blonde beauty,” died in 1984, and she inherited his real estate holdings on which lay his all-beef-patty empire. Before her death, she gave 14 gifts to charities and causes, schools and communities, social and animal services, to the tune of $1.97 billion. (Among Kroc’s offerings was $1 million to buy and distribute Missile Envy, Helen Caldicott’s 1984 polemic against nuclear proliferation: a copy was sent, 535 in total, to each member of Congress.)
Another Kroc bequest sent $225 million to National Public Radio, which included $5 million for KPBS. She funded the San Diego Zoo and the Opera at $5 million each as well as the Humane Society and Catholic Charities through their national chapters. Those bestowals vitalized local branches. Subsequently, a new state-of-the-art humane society was built on Gaines Street. As part of her largesse, $1.6 billion of the $1.97 billion went to the Salvation Army — the largest single gift to a charity ever recorded — to establish Kroc Centers throughout the country.
2. Joan and Irwin Jacobs, both 83
Estimated net worth: $1.3 billion
Major donations: University of California San Diego in 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2010: $208.3 million | San Diego Symphony in 2002 and 2003: $120 million | Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 2003, 2008, 2010: $23 million
Jacobs made his fortune as cofounder of Qualcomm, where he helped pioneer the communications revolution. The electrical engineer designed some of the first cell-phone technology still in use today. He taught at University of California San Diego from 1966 to 1972, where he continues to endow the Jacobs School of Engineering.
The lion’s share of his other multimillion-dollar gifts has been to higher education as well as to groups that support the arts, culture, and the humanities. Jacobs and his wife, married for 63 years, have also helped carry the La Jolla Athenaeum Library, KPBS radio, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Central Library, and an overhaul of the ingress and egress to Balboa Park. Over the years, they have contributed $636 million to charities and foundations.
3. Ernest Rady, 79
Estimated net worth: $620 million
Major donations: San Diego Children’s Hospital in 2006 and 2014: $180 million | UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management in 2004 and 2015: $130 million | San Diego Zoo in 2013: $10 million
Investment superstar Rady is the chief executive of American Assets Trust, a New York Stock Exchange–traded company that he started in 1967. The real estate investment trust employs 152 people in San Diego and owns or manages multi-family residential and office buildings as well as shopping malls such as Carmel Mountain Plaza in Carmel Valley and resorts such as Embassy Suites in Waikiki, Hawaii. Rady’s annual salary is $757,222.
Graduates of Rady’s School of Management, among the most prestigious schools of business in America, have incubated more than 80 San Diego companies and hatched local revenues totaling $2 billion. Among Rady’s medical interests is pediatric genomics. His money has pushed researchers to decode diseases such as obesity, autism, and asthma, especially as they enfeeble children.
4. Robert Price, 70
Estimated net worth: $800 million
Major donations: City Heights Development Corporation: $200 million | San Diego Revitalization Corporation in 2001: $40 million | San Diego Foundation in 2004: $15.5 million
Robert, son of Sol, big-bulk creator of San Diego’s Price Club, runs the erstwhile Price Family Charitable Fund, which is now Price Philanthropies Foundation. Sol, who died in 2009 at 93, sold his warehouse business to Costco in 1994 for $2 billion. The family then built PriceSmart, an international wholesaler, and still owns a 28 percent share. Its annual sales are nearly $3 billion.