Today: Donald Shiley, a tinkerer who revolutionized heart valves and made a fortune.
What he then did with most of that fortune is remarkable and hopefully it is what you and I would do under similar circumstances.
Born in 1920, Don grew up on the family farm in Yakima, WA where during the Great Depression; he did back breaking work picking fruit.
But also during the Great Depression, if something broke, such as farm equipment, Don learned to fix it for his family couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it. This began his tinkering.
A top student, Don earned a scholarship to Oregon State University, but left to enlist in the Navy during World War ll. After the war, using the GI Bill, he got college funding and graduated from the University of Portland with an engineering degree.
Don was 31 years old, 10 years older than many college students who graduate today.
During the 1950’s, he worked for Orange County, CA based Edwards Laboratories, a heart valve manufacturer. One day he got an earth shaking idea for heart valves.
But would it work? He raced to his workbench, drew it and built a model. After successfully testing it and with government approvals, Edwards put it in production, saving thousands of lives.
Meanwhile, Don, like many people had a dream of becoming an entrepreneur. In 1964 at the age of 44, an advanced time in life for becoming an entrepreneur, he began his own company, Irvine CA based Shiley Laboratories.
Don’s partner was Swedish cardiologist Dr. Viking Bjork and together they created a revolutionary heart valve. By 1971 they had it in mass production, saving tens of thousands of lives.
Ever the tinkerer, Don working with his team, enhanced the heart valve but also developed other crucial medical devices among them, the Shiley tracheotomy tube as his firm continued to grow and prosper by offering products that made a wonderful difference in peoples’ lives.
But in 1979, only a year before his 60th birthday, Don sold his firm to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer so he could end his corporate responsibilities and focus on his first love, “tinkering and dreaming.” He was a successful entrepreneur and now a vastly wealthy man.
In his personal life, Don had married many years earlier and adopted four children. But after his wife died, he became very lonely and it seemed nothing could fill the void of her loss.
Then a friend suggested they fly to the San Francisco Bay Area to see a play starring an actress he thought Don would enjoy meeting.
On Don’s Beechcraft Bonanza, they flew up from Orange County and watched the play, “A Lion in Winter,” and afterward, he went backstage and met actress, Darlene Loran.
At first, the meeting didn’t seem to amount to anything. But six months later, he asked her out and they began dating long distance.
Soon Don and Darlene were married. She was 30 and he 57. Yet despite the age difference, the marriage lasted for 33 years until he died on July 31st, 2010 at the age of 90.
Although an actress, Darlene’s job as a TV public service director paid her bills. She quit that job to devote herself to Don and this is where our story takes a very interesting twist.
When Don sold his firm, he had the time to tinker but also to do something else that was vital to him. He took his great fortune and with Darlene, donated much of it to help others.
They gave many millions of dollars to such causes as the UC San Diego Health System to create the Shiley Eye Center, which offers care to 120,000 patients each year while its mobile unit treats 12,000 children annually.
They established the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and became donors to the Scripps Clinic, the University of San Diego, KPBS public television and radio, the University of Portland and in honor of Darlene the actress, $20 million to San Diego’s Old Globe Theater.
Late in life, Don suffered from macular degeneration which threatened his eye sight and he could easily relate to people with eye problems, including those without money to pay for their care. The Alzheimer’s donations came because Darlene’s mother suffered from the disease.
Don was a devoted humanitarian, whose work and charitable donations have ultimately benefited millions of people. Perhaps you or a family member is one of those fortunate recipients.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you are a tinkerer, skilled at building or fixing things as Don was, is there something you could do that could make a major difference in the lives of others? You don’t have to invent the next great heart valve, it may be as simple as donating and installing toys in a poor community whose children often do without. In their hearts, you will be a hero.
In the next KazanToday:
A scholar and disabled rights leader who helped change the world.