He has given more money to conservation causes in California than anyone else. His gifts have helped protect 1,179 square miles of mountain and desert landscapes, an area the size of Yosemite National Park.In manner and appearance, David Gelbaum has maintained a low profile for someone who can afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars.
At age 55, retired from the rarefied world of Wall Street hedge funds, he lives in Newport Beach (Orange County) with his wife and two of his four children in a large home where visitors on occasion have mistaken him for the gardener. Bespectacled, 5-foot-5 and slightly built, he speaks softly, barely above a hoarse whisper. He drives a Honda Civic hybrid, wears jeans and T- shirts to business meetings and helps the kids clean up at the wilderness camp- outs he sponsors.
Those who know him say he is never more uncomfortable than when asked to talk about his wealth or how much of it he has given away.
His donations, which according to public records and other sources total at least $250 million, have preserved hundreds of miles of wildlife corridors across mountains and deserts, tying together once-isolated national parks and wilderness areas. One conservation deal, land trust experts say, is the largest single purchase of private land ever handed over to the U.S. government for one purpose: to leave it alone. Gelbaum, a native of Minnesota who moved to California as a teen, was a math prodigy who parlayed his talents into a highly lucrative three-decade career using mathematical formulas to pick stocks and bonds for wealthy investors in hedge funds.
He won't say how much he made. He started giving his money away in ever- larger amounts in 1994.
"Most wealthy people spend their lives trying to make more and more money rather than give it away," Gelbaum said during a series of interviews that he agreed to only reluctantly. "They wait too long. They are depriving themselves of a lot of joy. I'm doing what I want to do. It's not like it's money that I or my family will ever need.