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Spotlight on Women: Darlene Shiley

Meet the Philanthropist


Darlene Shiley | Photo by Jenny Siegwart

Talk about your beginning.

I was an only child and my parents divorced when I was very young, so I was raised by my mother and my grandmother. We lived in Alameda, in the shipyards, which was the projects. My mother understood the importance of education and she didn’t like the school in the projects; she sent me to live with my grandmother during the week so that I could go to school in Oakland.

Did you go to college?

Yes. I was the first in our extended family to go to college. I got into San Jose State with a scholarship from Bank of America. I was studying to be a teacher, but when I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do, I sent the money back to B of A and became a biology major.

What did you take away from your upbringing?

I had strong roots but I was very quiet. I learned a strong work ethic from my mother and grandmother. I worked a normal job during the day and performed at night. I was a pretty good soloist and I loved acting, which I think brought me out.

How old were you when you met Donald?

I was 30, which in those days was considered an old maid. My mother always told me I had to wait for the right one. I never felt that I needed a man, but that changed when I met Donald.

Did you have similar personalities?

Oh no—Donald was not a type A. If he didn’t like something, he would just walk away. But I will tell you if you mess with me, and then I will walk away. We married in 1978 and six months later he sold the business to Pfizer. Donald said, “It’s my turn to be happy, and I’ve chosen you.”

I am a kind, generous person doing what I can do to make a difference.

How did you get started in philanthropy?

When I was a kid my grandmother encouraged me to give back. When Donald asked me to manage the estate, I threw myself into it. We decided to make larger gifts to organizations to see how they managed it. We wanted to give while we were alive. I pushed on—if you pledge it, you pay it.

What are your philanthropic priorities?

My greatest passion is education. Most of my energies are on the boards of USD and Holy Cross University of Portland.

How do you spend your time at the universities?

As a mentor to students, and I love this. I hit the glass ceiling so many times that I was knocked unconscious. We do have to fight a little harder. I will go the extra mile, especially for young women. I am of Latina heritage, but I never used that to get into a school, and I expect the same of other people.

Whom do you admire?

My husband, my mother, and anyone who has the guts and wisdom to see beyond themselves.

Is there anyone you would like to meet?

I would have liked to meet Katharine Hepburn, and I would love to sit down with Barbara Bush.

What do you want people to know about you?

I am a kind, generous person doing what I can do to make a difference.

If you could start over, what would you do differently?

Not a whole hell of a lot.

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