Meet Madame Chair

USD Board of Trustees Chair Darlene Marcos Shiley


There aren’t enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe Darlene Marcos Shiley’s irrepressible personality. Words like eloquent, funny, passionate, authentic and likable spring to mind, as does the simple fact that this is a woman who says what she means and means what she says.

The new chair of the University of San Diego’s board of trustees takes her job very seriously. “One of the reasons we’re affiliated with USD is that my husband, Donald, really likes the values-based education. I’ve been on the board for a long time, but even back then, ethics was an issue, especially for Donald. Not just ethics, but the Catholicism of the school.”

The couple shares a passion for philanthropy, and has given millions to projects like USD’s Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology, The Old Globe, UCSD’s Shiley Eye Center and the University of Portland. “There are just some things that you do because they’re important, and they’re important to you,” Shiley explains. She prefers to distribute donations across a wide swath of organizations, although the couple’s major gifts tend to benefit causes in education, science and the arts.

“We’re cutting across lines, and I like doing that. I don’t want to be known as a donor to one particular place. I think organizations should work together. Everybody with an idea doesn’t need their own organization. Everybody doesn’t get to be CEO of their own non-profit.”

Throughout her life, Shiley has recognized the importance of making a difference. She grew up in modest circumstances in Northern California, but her mother and grandmother encouraged her: “They told me that just because you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful to others.” She still vividly recalls serving as a candy-striper and feeding a soldier in an iron lung his dinner. “It made such an impression on me. He had to tell me what size to cut the food so it would be all right for him. It was a wild mixture of discomfort and joy to know that I was really doing something.”

After graduating from San Jose State University with a degree in theater arts and humanities, Shiley was cast in a number of leading parts at various repertory companies; among her favorite roles were Guineviere in Camelot and Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. It was after a performance of the latter that she first met Donald, who’d invented a new, state-of-the-art “tilting disc” style of artificial heart valve.

“He came up with a mutual friend to see me in Berkeley, and we went out to dinner afterwards,” she recalls. “We were just talking and having a lovely evening at this long, after-show dinner.” She pauses, her eyes faraway. “I let him drive my car that night; he was the first person I’d ever allowed to drive my car. It was my pride and joy, a Karman Ghia. Then he waited six months to ask me out.”

Shiley laughs, then continues.“I asked him after we had been married for a little while why he had waited for so long. He said he was afraid. I said, ‘Afraid of what?’ He said, ‘I was afraid you’d say no.’ I said, ‘You idiot! We could have had another six months together!’ When he finally did call, we just weren’t ever apart after that.”

Now married for nearly 30 years, the couple’s partnership has been a true love story. “I haven’t had a good marriage, I’ve had a spectacular marriage,” she says, and confesses that for years the couple celebrated their anniversary every month. “Friends just thought we were insane.”

Donald’s intense interest in science, along with Darlene’s passion for the arts, have definitely influenced their gifts to the university. The Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology came about because of their $10 million gift, and a $1 million endowment for two USD Master of Fine Arts scholarships — as well as some funds for undergraduate dramatic pursuits — was the result of her commitment to those dedicated enough to pursue the theater as a vocation.

“It was my mother and my grandmother who taught me that education is everything. I was the first grandchild to go to college and I realized at the time that it was pretty big, but as I get older, I realize that education really is everything.”

In January, Shiley spoke at an event celebrating the successful conclusion of the $200 million Campaign for the University of San Diego. She also announced that she and Donald had decided to give $1 million to benefit the School of Leadership and Education Sciences and close the campaign in style. “Everything is about the students,” she said before an appreciative crowd. “The true measure of this campaign is in how it impacts their lives.” — Julene Snyder

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