She was an actress, singer, star of local musicals and plays. An only child, fond of the grand gesture, fond of adopting and adapting characters. Gregarious, hilarious, generous. One night after a performance she is given flowers by an admirer. Next night she meets the admirer, a quiet man, some sort of a businessman, and, she says, I don’t know what came over me, there was just something about him, a quiet confidence, a considerate calm. He was comfortable in his own skin, you know? And how many people are really like that? He was comfortable being himself, which made him genuinely interested in other people, and that’s very attractive. At least it was to me. Still is. I suppose the measure of how much I liked him was that soon I let him drive my car, and I loved that car.
Well, pretty soon after he drove my car he had somehow gotten me back to Catholicism, and pretty soon after that we were married, at Saint Francis de Sales Church, and in all the years since then I cannot remember a day when Donald wasn’t as calm and open and gracious as the night I met him for the first time backstage. We’ve traveled the world since then, all over, and we have had many adventures sad and joyous, and we have spent many years together, and I suppose what I most admire about him still is what attracted me in the first place: He is an honorable man, a man of his word, an honest man. Which is maybe the highest compliment you can give another human being, you know?
Donald and Darlene Shiley have an apartment high above Balboa Park in San Diego. The vast bay is a dream in the west windows and the muscular trees of old California fill the east. The crisp light and salted air are blessings. Donald Shiley is talking about the feeling of tools, the heft in his hand, and the fragile crackle of the paper that lined the boxes of peaches and pears he picked as a child, and the mangled map of the seared scar in his hand, and the way his two grandmothers ruled the kitchen when he was a boy, and how really maybe what he learned most at the University of Portland was that relentless curiosity is indeed a grace, and that talents have to be sharpened and used in order to matter, and that the marriage of discipline and dreams leads to the most extraordinary children, to creations that can change the world and save lives and give children back their fading fathers and make pale children whole again and come as close to sparking resurrections as human beings can get.
I sit quietly as he tells me stories.
That was a good day, he says. Yes it was.
You must understand, says Doctor Starr. The human condition demands people like Donald. It is our nature to dream and to have the courage to implement our dreams. It is our nature to sense something out there before us and reach for it. And there is some-thing quintessentially and prototypically American about Donald. I am not sure any other culture would produce a man quite like Donald. He begins in an orchard in the rural west, and with amazing energy and freedom of thought, he changes the field of medicine forever. I admire that man. I admire the courage of his mind. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He is a great man.
Donald Shiley is staring out the window at San Diego Bay. I am not sure he is seeing San Diego Bay. I sit silently; interrupting this particular man’s musing seems like an exquisitely bad idea.
But then he peers at me and smiles, and I ask him a question I have long wanted to ask: What would he say to the University’s three thousand students and twenty thousand alumni, to the two hundred professors and five hundred employees, to the many thousands of people around the world who savor the University’s mad ideas and dreams and ambitions? What would he who wandered quietly through Engineering Hall when new, who wandered the bluff at night when the stars shone and the river gleamed, who leapt from our laboratories and classrooms into a most remarkable life and career, what would he say to everyone else who has the University somewhere in the hidden chambers of their hearts?
Find out what God gave you, he says quietly, and then sharpen and hone and train your gift, and then go and use it. Go.
Brian Doyle (email@example.com) is the editor of this magazine, and the author most recently of The Wet Engine, about “the muddle & mangle & music & miracle of hearts.” The University will present an honorary doctorate of public service to Donald Shiley ’51 on May 7, at Commencement.