Don McDonald: Retired physicist on a mission to honor Nobel Laureates and inspire students

Don’s Project

The sound of rushing water filled my ears as I perched on a cold stone bench next to Boulder Creek.  Several dozen yards away, traffic rumbled by on Broadway, but most of the noise was mercifully muffled by the steady roar of the creek and the sound of the occasional bicyclist whizzing past.

Beside me sat a man whose attire was casual: a beige fishing hat on top, beige pants on the bottom and a burgundy button-up shirt sandwiched in between. His pale blue eyes, though slightly obscured behind wrinkles and large gold-rimmed glasses, looked alert and purposeful.

That is probably because Don McDonald, an 81-year-old retired physicist who has lived in Boulder for 50 years, does have a purpose, one that he is passionate about.

McDonald, who spent a 30-year career with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has spent several hours a day almost every day since February 2013 planning and implementing the Nobel Circle Project.  The project, in short, aims to erect a monument in Boulder that celebrates the city’s Nobel Laureates as role models and inspires youth to high achievement.

Boulder has gained national recognition for its world-class research facilities and multiple federal laboratories.  It is also home to five Nobel Laureates, a fact not lost on McDonald. What troubles him though is that little is being done to celebrate these five individuals and their significant contributions to the community.

He decided to act on his concerns. “To be very detailed about it, I woke up one morning and thought, five Nobel Prizes in Boulder. That’s unusual. And what’s being done about it?  Nothing.”

McDonald has invested much of the last two-and-a-half years of his life turning that nothing into something.

To turn his dream of a monument into a reality, McDonald has funneled his energies into a variety of channels. He has maintained a steady stream of emails, phone calls and meetings with individuals at the University of Colorado Boulder, the federal labs and the district’s public schools, which has earned him a long list of endorsements.

Don McDonald stands in front of the Boulder County Courthouse in the exact location he hopes to erect a monument to honor Boulder's Nobel Laureates.

Don McDonald stands in front of the Boulder County Courthouse in the exact location he hopes to erect a monument to honor Boulder’s Nobel Laureates.

He is in the process of producing several videos he plans to distribute in elementary and secondary classrooms to inform and inspire students about the project. He has also received promises of funding for expenses, which are estimated at $500,000, and has selected six semi-finalists in the design competition for the monument. Donors will be involved in the final selection process. McDonald declined to name investors, stating that until the project becomes public, their names will remain private.

Involving the School Board

McDonald’s most recent efforts involve Boulder Valley School District.  He realizes a monument to the Nobel Laureates is in itself not a worthy goal.  However, if the monument connects with the community and schools, then it is more likely to make a long-lasting impact.

At a BVSD board meeting last month he presented his ideas in hopes of gaining the board’s support.  He stood behind the podium, his 6-foot frame erect, his voice soft but steady, and described the second facet of the Nobel Circle Project:

“The real goal is to awaken students to the possibilities in their lives . . . To that end we will create opportunities for scholarships for students that want to excel. Excellence will be judged by competitions among students conducted at the site of the Nobel Circle . . . students district wide can compete for the best science, art, and literature works.  Winners will receive Nobel Scholarships.”

The idea of Nobel Scholarships is the latest twist on things and the least developed, McDonald says.  McDonald is not sure how many scholarships will be given out or what the monetary amount will be. Those are details he is still considering but he believes raising a few thousand dollars every year for scholarships should not be difficult.

School board member Shelly Benford is in favor of McDonald’s idea.

“I agree with Don that our Nobel Laureates are the celebrities of education . . . they’re important role models for our kids . . . especially for kids who want to excel academically, they offer a vision of what’s possible.”

The next step is for the board to draft a resolution in support of the project and vote on it. If four or more members are in favor of it, then McDonald will receive their endorsement, Benford said.   To allocate any further resources, the board needs additional information concerning the role McDonald envisions for them; details McDonald continues to flesh out.

What obstacles remain

The biggest challenge facing McDonald is getting a politically approved location on which he can build the monument. He envisions it erected in a prominent Boulder location.  His preferred choice is in front of the Boulder County Courthouse on Pearl Street, a high traffic area. He considers installing the monument in Boulder’s Central Park a second appealing option.

He plans on moving forward with his request to city council to build on these locations after the Nov. 3 election.

Despite the frustrations of getting the attention and involvement of public authorities, McDonald remains lighthearted and optimistic about the situation.

“I like to laugh about these sorts of things,” he said with the same genuine chuckle that punctuates many of his comments.

The project’s future

McDonald is uniquely positioned to see the Nobel Circle Project through to completion, according to those who have witnessed him at work.

Virginia Schick, currently an art teacher at Boulder High has collaborated with McDonald on several aspects of the project and thinks Don’s success so far comes from a variety of things.

“He believes in it. I think that’s the number one thing.”

Schick also mentioned how well-connected he is in the community, his energy, and his sense of urgency.

McDonald is up against a lot of roadblocks, said Christina Pierson, a teacher and writing interventionist at Louisville Elementary School who has lived most of her life in Boulder.

“He’s tenacious,” Pierson said. “Have you noticed? He never ever gives up! . . . he’s always moving forward . . . and he’s very invested in the idea.”

McDonald’s own sentiments echo the comments of Schick and Pierson. When asked what experiences in his life have motivated him to pursue this goal, McDonald didn’t hesitate.

“I love science! Science is the most progressive force in civilization. What do you think about that?!”

For more information on what the Nobel Circle Project could bring to Boulder, listen to what Boulder Valley educators and board members have to say!

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