Engineering Alumnus Don Williams Donates $1.1M Property to College 

Professor stands with two donors
Mechanical engineering Professor Jim Widmann thanks donors Don and Jean Williams with a Cal Poly gift basket during a recent visit.

Cal Poly alumnus Donald E. Williams had a choice to make when a home in his real estate assets became available: Sell it to buy another property or give it away.  

“I elected to give it to the College of Engineering,” said Williams, a 1964 mechanical engineering graduate.  

Williams and his wife, Jean D. Williams, made a gift agreement with the college that outlined how the residential property appraised at $1.1 million would be sold, with proceeds going to the establishment of a fund to benefit the Mechanical Engineering Department.  

They named the fund after two of Williams’ professors – Morris P. Taylor and Joy O. Richardson – who inspired him as he studied engineering at Cal Poly.  

The first two initiatives will result in lab upgrades and support for student projects focused on internal combustion-powered engines. Each initiative will receive $100,000.  

Mechanical engineering Professor Jim Widmann, who recently completed his tenure as department chair, outlined plans that include the creation of new measurements and robotics labs along with a new design space. Robotic arms will be added to the existing robotics lab, with installation expected by winter quarter.   

“I was brought up with the notion of tithing, and as my wife and I have prospered we’ve given a fair amount of money away,” Williams said. “Giving back is a good thing to do.”  

Williams grew up in Santa Barbara and attended UCSB in pursuit of a physics degree. By his junior year, however, he realized he didn’t know what his professors were talking about.   

“I thought, ‘This is no way to go through life,’” he recalled.  

Williams traded the theoretical for the practical and transferred to Cal Poly in 1961 after he visited the campus and chatted with Dean Harold Hayes. He opted to study mechanical engineering with a concentration in machine design.  

He’d always had an affinity for cars, poring over issues of Hot Rod magazine and rebuilding a couple of engines. When he acquired a 1931 Ford Model A, he tore it apart and rebuilt it completely.  

After graduating in 1964, Williams was hired at the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory in Port Hueneme, where he spent the next 30 years working in nuclear defense engineering and energy conversion. His final 10-year stint involved land mine counter measures technology for the Marine Corps which required multiple trips to Camp Pendleton. 

In 1983, he started buying and upgrading apartment buildings.  

“I got into real estate because I did a terrible job trying to buy and sell stocks,” he said with a laugh.  

He bought a Burbank property in 2007 for his son, as he and his fiancée wanted a house in a quiet town with good schools. His son eventually moved, and the house that had doubled in value became available.  

He contacted Dean Amy S. Fleischer and Assistant Dean of Development and External Relations Amy Spikes, who had recently visited, to let them know he and his wife wanted proceeds from a property sale to enhance engineering facilities on campus.  

Williams asked that his gift be named in honor of Taylor and Richardson, citing their influence as educators and storytellers. He detailed how they would regale him and his peers with tales from Cal Poly’s past while teaching them engineering principles.  

“Much of my fond memories at Cal Poly have to do with the faculty who were very likable people,” Williams said.  

A sign bearing the names of Taylor and Richardson will be installed outside the Mechanical Engineering office in line with Williams’ request.  

By Emily Slater