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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

Retiree Turned Education Activist

SPU ’s new trustee is on a mission to improve learning in American classrooms

ON A LATE SUMMER DAY, Donald Nielsen awaited a phone call from Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire. “I was talking to her about changing how we recruit, train, and place teachers,” says Nielsen, now in his 15th year of retirement.

A new Seattle Pacific University trustee, Nielsen isn’t taking a familiar approach to “retirement” — if you think retirement should include an RV and a winter home in Arizona.

Once the CEO of Virginia-based Hazleton Corporation, one of the world’s largest biomedical research companies, Nielsen retired in 1992 and immediately called then U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. “I said, ‘I’m the retired CEO of a NYSE company, and I’ve decided to spend the balance of my working life in education,’” he explains. That began what he calls a “two-year odyssey” that included meeting with the chairs of both the U.S. House and Senate Education Committees, as well as governors, state legislators, and educators from 19 states. Through it all, he asked: “Can public education work?”

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Danish immigrants, Nielsen earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. By 1969, he had raised $200,000 with business partner, Kirby Cramer, to begin a company that became Hazleton. When Nielsen retired 23 years later, the corporation had grown to $165 mil- Retiree Turned Education Activist lion in sales and employed 2,500 people across three continents.

“Before I even got involved with Hazleton, I had picked two sectors of society that I was interested in: One was the medical sector and one was education,” Nielsen explains. “They are the two systems in this society that work least well.”

Once retired, he and his wife, Melissa, left the East Coast to return to Seattle, where he became a public education “activist.”

In 1993, Nielsen was elected to the Seattle School Board. Shortly after, he and other board members recruited retired Army Major General John Stanford, whose out-of-the-box ideas about improving education resonated with Nielsen — and a huge following of Seattleites. But only three years later, Stanford died of leukemia.

During Nielsen’s second term, he served as board president — and came under fire when he recommended advertising in public schools to raise money for underfunded areas such as after-school programs, drama, and music. “It was considered crass commercialism,” he says. “But I have come to the conclusion that we can build good public schools with state and local funding — but great public schools will require private giving, and private giving can take many forms.”

As his term was ending, Nielsen again began asking how America could upgrade the quality of its education quickly and economically. An award-winning Seattle teacher had the answer, says Nielsen: “Her comment was, ‘That’s easy. I’d film the greatest teachers in the country, and I’d make those teaching practices available to anybody in the country over the Internet.’”

Now co-founder and chairman of Teach-First, a company that does just that, Nielsen is seeing the organization’s “Professional Learning Communities” strengthen public education in 25 states. More districts and states are added each year. Incidentally, Sandi Everlove, the Seattle teacher who first suggested filming teachers, earned her teaching certificate from Seattle Pacific in 1985.

With Nielsen’s experience in the Seattle education arena, it was inevitable that he and SPU President Philip Eaton would connect. The two met at Seattle business functions and learned they shared a passion for excellence in education. In early 2006, Eaton asked Nielsen to join the SPU Board of Trustees. “Our friendship has grown over a period of time,” says Eaton. “He’s gotten to know more about Seattle Pacific, and often he would push me a little bit, asking what we were doing to train teachers to be leaders.”

Nielsen says his work with SPU is an extension of the promise he made years ago to improve education in America — at all levels.

“Don is going to be a terrific trustee,” says Eaton. “I’m looking forward to leaning on his insight.”

— By Hope McPherson (
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Beyond Intellectual Mastery
President Philip Eaton offers a more complete view of education: Learning is “a bigger story than our own little pieces of intellectual mastery.”

Advising Future Physicians
In 2006, SPU achieved a 100 percent medical school acceptance rate through its unique, longtime approach to “shepherding” premed students.

A “Determined Quiet”
Alumna of the Year Lora Jones ’43 proves one person can change the world. Her life exemplifies ardent faith through war, life on a prison farm, and faithfully preaching the gospel.

Fiction on a Small Canvas
A new volume celebrates the best in Christian short stories — and leads off with a creation of SPU Adjunct Professor Mary Kenagy.

Goodwill Goalkeeping
Star soccer player Marcus Hahnemann ’93 wins fans in Europe, and represents America in the 2006 World Cup.

My Response
Principal and SPU doctoral student Karol Pulliam considers the classroom implications of John Medina’s 12 brain rules.

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