Fr. Don Willette is not your everyday Catholic priest. So, appropriately, his gift to create an endowed faculty position at Colorado State University is anything but every day.
Willette, 77, has donated nearly $1M to establish a position for a professor of theology in the College of Liberal Arts. It will be the fourth endowed faculty position in the college.
“I like to think of the university as a place where various scientists, students, and faculty can search for wisdom…try to figure out how everything fits together,” Willette said. “I’ve always believed that theology should be taught as a science. I’m hoping that this position will give students the opportunity to learn how to wonder, to ask critical questions.”
Willette spent his youth on family farms in North Dakota, Montana, and South Dakota. His family was poor, but education was always a priority.
By the time he reached high school he was already thinking about joining the priesthood. He attended midwestern Catholic universities and was within a Hail Mary of completing his nine-year journey when he received a different calling.
“I quit the seminary in 1967 – the Vietnam War was giving me ulcers, watching those body bags come off the planes every night on the news,” he said. “I thought if I could join the service and be in leadership I could make a difference.”
That decision led to a 30-year career in the Air Force – 15 of those years in active duty. He served two tours in Vietnam as a ground radar operator before finding his way to the Department of Defense working in satellite surveillance and intelligence. He retired a full colonel.
During his time in the military he was engaged twice and was content with his secular life. He moved to Estes Park – he learned to ski on a hill in Minnesota during college, and came to love Colorado while in the seminary in Denver – and launched a career in real estate. He owned a popular restaurant and was dating a fellow business owner in Estes Park.
“I had a pretty good life,” he said. “I was looking at getting engaged a third time. I thought I would live the rest of my life in Estes Park.”
Everything changed – not in a flash, but in a crash. He fell asleep while driving to Denver and his car plunged 100 feet off the road. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and was tossed from the car as it careened down the hillside below Estes Park.
“I never should have lived through it,” he said. “Some people heard the crash, came to the scene and were hollering to see if anyone was alive. I woke up, stood up, and I literally had no damage – just a few scrapes and bruises.
“I got to thinking, ‘What if I had died?’” he said. “I figured I had 30 to 40 years left, and I wanted to make the best of it. I started thinking about going back to seminary.”
He joined four other Vietnam veterans in his class at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver. He was ordained a priest in 1983, spending the next 28 years serving at various parishes along the Front Range. He was the pastor at St. John XXIII parish near the CSU campus from 2001 to 2011, finding great satisfaction connecting with the many students who were part of the congregation.
“I loved my time there,” he said. “Those were some of the best years of my life.”
Because of his strong connection to the campus community and to CSU, Willette has provided nearly $1M to support a new professorship, the Father Don Willette Professorship for Theological Studies. “I have always believed in making things better and making a difference in the world,” he said. His gift to CSU was made possible by leveraging his unique investments, which included cash as well as a rental property.
“People always wonder, ‘How can I make a difference?’” he said. “Creating a faculty position like this at CSU has been a dream of mine. CSU has been a big part of my life for many years, and I wanted to do something for the students.”
According to Willette, an important part of life is asking questions of ourselves: how to get along with people; how to be accepting; how to live a more meaningful life. “My favorite word is wonder. To be full of wonder is how you search and discover,” he said. “Universities are a safe place to wonder. A safe place to raise questions. And the only way to search for wisdom is through good questions.”
“People always wonder, ‘How can I make a difference?’ Creating a faculty position like this at CSU has been a dream of mine. CSU has been a big part of my life for many years, and I wanted to do something for the students. They have such a sense of wonder, and a university is a safe place where you can raise questions.”
— Father Don Willette
With the new professorship, students will have the opportunity to wonder, ask good questions, and listen to others with respect on issues of morality and moral theology.
Ben Withers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the new faculty position will provide students with a learning opportunity not often found at land-grant schools.
“We’re incredibly grateful to Fr. Don for this gift, which will have enduring influence on campus culture,” Withers said. “His goal is to encourage faculty and staff at CSU to engage in academic pursuits and open conversations about the history and theological traditions of Christianity. The person who fills this position will be a catalyst for dialogue and conversation that would enrich the ‘humanness’ of students and faculty on campus, and engage the greater Fort Collins community through lectures and other initiatives.”
Willette retired in Fort Collins and remains active, filling in where needed at Catholic parishes in the area. The search to fill the professor position is underway, as is a fundraising campaign to use the gift as a catalyst to create an endowed chair position in the College of Liberal Arts.