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A legacy of education

Don Watson

Donald Watson '82

Donald Watson ’82 has an interesting perspective on education, and he should: It transformed his life and the lives of his family members.

Watson grew up the sixth of eight children on a farm in rural Illinois, and now lives on the East Coast. He is the executive vice president of Arch Insurance Group, Inc. All of his siblings have become successful as well. One is a lawyer, another a nuclear engineer, and another a software engineer.

“We were all raised on a farm without indoor plumbing. Education created an opportunity for each of us,” said Watson, whose grandparents attended Illinois State Normal University.

His mother Betty Fletcher ’74, M.S. ’77, earned degrees in special education to support the family following his parent’s divorce. Watson’s father, Darrell Gene Watson ’65, completed a degree in middle level teacher education. After earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1976, he taught in ISU’s Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF). Extending the family’s legacy, Watson and his siblings all attended U-High, and three of the eight graduated from Illinois State.

Watson came to Illinois State with a Presidential Scholarship that offset tuition costs while he studied political science and economics. He worked three campus jobs and joined the debate team, in part because it provided a $200 scholarship for participants. He belonged to Alpha Tau Omega, where he met friends and had a “wake up call” to focus on school. In 1981, Watson won the Alumni Most Valuable Student Award.

When offered the opportunity to represent Illinois State students on Normal’s Town Council, Watson stepped up, acting as student liaison to the governing body.

“Coming to Illinois State was a learning experience on so many different levels,” said Watson, who later earned a MBA from Duke University. His transition from an undergraduate focus in humanities to business school—and from public school to private—reinforced his belief that “there are opportunities everywhere if you want them. You just have to be prepared to accept them.”

Motivated to provide the same life-changing opportunities to others, Watson and his wife Nancy created two new funds in the College of Education during Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State. A $50,000 contribution created the Betty Phillips Watson Fund in Special Education. The scholarship honors his mother’s dedication to bettering herself through education by providing for students who demonstrate financial need.

A second $50,000 gift honors his father’s memory. The D. Gene Watson Fund in EAF enables faculty to further develop their skills through travel and research. “I liked the idea of providing faculty the opportunity to network outside of their everyday environment,” said Watson, who saw his father attend faculty conferences during the 70s when travel by plane was considered a luxury. Watson’s company matched both of his $50,000 gifts, allowing Watson to contribute a total of $100,000 towards each fund.

Watson’s tendency to seize opportunities as they arise has given him the ability to see problems with an innovative eye. He has been closely following how educators are responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“There are so many changes that have to come about. Educators have to learn to adapt and develop their teaching methods. It’s fascinating,” Watson said. He believes these adaptations position his alma mater for continued leadership in the teaching field. “A school like Illinois State could be on the forefront of analyzing data related to remote learning.”

To Watson, education is more than the foundation that took him from a farm in central Illinois to a career in New York City. His decision to give back to Illinois State stems from a core belief in education’s ability to develop human capital.

“Education has been critical for my family and for my own personal development. The role of teachers is so important in our lives,” said Watson. “It just seemed to me very important to recognize how vital education is.”

Watson’s gifts to the College of Education acknowledge the transformative power of education and enable others to experience the life-changing opportunities Watson and his family enjoyed.

Gifts to the College of Education expand student support, attract and develop top faculty, and sustain excellence within the College. To learn more about supporting the College of Education, visit Giving.IllinoisState.edu/opportunities/college-education or contact College of Education Director of Development Wilma Bates at (309) 438-4304 or wbates@ilstu.edu.