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Don de Laski: Cultivating a Dream

The impetus for one of Mason’s largest and most important gifts didn’t start here; it started in a classroom at Duke University. That’s where the young Don de Laski, an accounting major, encountered a comparative religion class that expanded his perspective and changed his life.

“He knew from firsthand experience how an elective course could be really pivotal for a person,” says Mark Thurston, a senior fellow at Mason’s Center for Consciousness and Transformation [1], one of the results of de Laski’s generosity. “He wanted Mason students to have that kind of opportunity, and it has grown into a full 15-credit undergraduate minor at Mason.”

Don and Nancy de Laski [2]

Don and Nancy de Laski

Last spring, the Mason community lost a dear friend and supporter with the passing of de Laski, who, along with his wife, Nancy, who died in 2009, gave more than $15 million to support the arts, creativity, and educational opportunities throughout the university. Mason’s Early Identification Program and the Parent Institute for Quality Education also received support from the de Laskis. These groups work together to help the region’s underserved K-12 parents understand how to advocate for their children to fulfill their college dreams.

Although the Center for Consciousness and Transformation was only one of de Laski’s legacies, but it was definitely a favorite. Thurston says that during the first two years of the center’s operations de Laski attended classes regularly.

“He would fully participate in the classes, reading all the books, writing all the assigned essays, and being a member of all small group discussions in class,” says Thurston, who also helped de Laski write his memoir, Letting Life Happen. “At the end of a class, I would have students send him notes about their experiences.”

De Laski’s daughter, Kathleen, read from one of these letters during his memorial service on campus.

In addition to the center, the de Laskis also enjoyed the arts, and their gifts were instrumental in creating the Potomac Arts Academy, which brings university-quality arts instruction to the community, and the addition to the Performing Arts Building.

“When we met, Don let it very quickly be known that he wanted to have fun,” says William Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “And he thought the arts were fun.”

De Laski also had his own ideas about what he wanted to support. It was his idea to start the Potomac Arts Academy because he wanted community members to have access to quality arts instruction.

“We wanted a community program but really didn’t have the means to launch one,” says Reeder. “If it wasn’t for Don, that would’ve remained on our wish list.”

The academy has served more than 3,000 students of all ages since it began, and the best part is it is self-sustaining.

“That was another important part of Don’s philanthropy,” says Reeder. “He was a businessman and looked for ways for his gifts to be self-sustaining. With the academy, he hoped that once it got up and running, tuition would pay for its continued growth, and it has.”

As for the expansion of arts facilities, the Performing Arts Building now bears the de Laski name and truly positioned the college for the future.

“It has been transformational for us,” says Reeder. “The building provides a new foundation for the next 20 years of academic growth.”

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done so far,” says Thurston.