$20 million gift makes Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering a reality
As the steward of her late husband Donald’s legacy, Darlene Marcos Shiley always looks for signs that she’s doing right by him. One crisp, fall evening, she had a conversation with him in her head — and her heart. She asked for a sign. It didn’t have to be a burning bush, but it couldn’t be so subtle that she’d miss it.
A few days later, while looking through Donald’s notebooks from the 1960s, when he was formulating his ideas for the artificial heart valve that made him a legend, the sign fell right into her lap.
A piece of paper fluttered from the pages of a notebook. It was a draft of a love letter he’d written her one Christmas. If that wasn’t a sign, nothing was. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she made a decision that would forever change the University of San Diego.
That decision was revealed to the campus one sunny morning in September 2012. Darlene Shiley stood in the center of Alcalá Park — surrounded by students sporting blue T-shirts that read, “The Future Starts Today” — and shared the news that she would provide the university with a $20 million gift for the opening of the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering.
“My late husband was, first and foremost, an engineer,” says Darlene, who joined USD’s Board of Trustees in 1990, and served as its chair from 2007 to 2010. “I amdetermined that his legacy reflects that beginning.”
The son of a farmer, Donald grew up in Washington. He attended Oregon State University on scholarship, but left to join the Navy. After World War II, he used the GI Bill to make his way through school at the University of Portland, where he earned a degree in hydraulic engineering.
Donald began his career as a machinist, mastering the skill of sketching and building prototypes. He later worked at Edwards Laboratories, the first manufacturer of artificial heart valves. In 1964, he left his position as chief engineer to start his own company, Shiley Laboratory, in his garage. He went on to invent the Bjork-Shiley heart valve, which is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
This year, USD’s engineering program is ranked #25 by U.S. News & World Report. Darlene says her husband of 32 years would have been proud that she helped take it to the next level. She hopes the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering will produce graduates like Donald and is confident that someday she’ll look at a bridge somewhere and know a USD graduate made it happen.
President Mary E. Lyons, PhD, called the gift transformational — one that will take what is already a premier program to an unprecedented level of prominence and distinction.
“The Shileys have demonstrated over many years an amazing commitment to this university — to enhancing the student experience,” Lyons said at the campus event. “This represents not only one of the most expansive and generous gifts from the Shiley family, it represents one of the university’s greatest gifts in its entire history.
“They helped raise our MFA program to a level of national prominence. And those who study in the sciences know how the Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology moved our science programs into an entirely different stratosphere.”
Donald was a semi-retired widower when he met Darlene Loran in 1976 at a Berkeley community theatre production of “The Lion in Winter,” in which she played the starring role of Eleanor of Aquitaine. They married in 1978 and, six months later, he sold his company to Pfizer Inc.
Early in their marriage, Darlene asked why they had to wait until they died to give money to causes that touched their hearts. Donald agreed with her give-as-you-go philosophy and put her in charge of their philanthropic decisions.
Their first gift to USD — more than 20 years ago — created endowed engineering and theatre arts scholarships.
“Scholarships are the best way to show your belief in students,” Darlene says. “I don’t know of too many people who don’t need a little help getting through college — especially these days. I firmly believe students should be rewarded for hard work and talent, in addition to financial need.”
Darlene knows about financial need. She grew up in a working-class Oakland, Calif., neighborhood in a home she shared with her mother and grandmother.
“My mother would buy household items on layaway and pay every week until she could bring the item home,” she recalls.
Darlene also knows about hard work and talent. She qualified to attend Stanford, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she graduated with honors from San Jose State University, where she majored indrama and minored in humanities.
She’s come a long way since those days, but has never forgotten her roots. She also hasn’t forgotten that education transforms lives.
At USD, we’d call her a Changemaker. For Darlene, being a catalyst for change means passing “Grandma’s Mirror Test.”
“She would tell me that every night before I went to bed, I should look in the mirror and ask myself if I made good choices,” Darlene says. “If I hadn’t, then I should do better tomorrow. I like to think that she and my mom — and, of course, Donald — are watching over me. I hope they see that I have the right stuff to be my own Changemaker in the world. If I don’t, then I will do better tomorrow.”