Sheldon Danielson, AB’66

Enduring journey

A builder at heart makes education work for others through a gift for Odyssey Scholarships.

Sheldon Danielson, AB’66, wants to be remembered for making it work. For this retired polymath, “it” could be anything from electronics to mechanics, glassblowing, motorcycles, optics, seismographs, or software.

“In the early days, building stuff that worked exercised my technological green thumb,” says Danielson, who could solder by age seven and had an amateur radio license by the time he was 15. “Yet however satisfying making it work was, my greatest joy came from seeing it used.”

A few years ago, he realized he could help make education “work” for others in the form of a bequest intention to the University of Chicago to support Odyssey Scholarships, which meet the financial needs of low-income students. “It is my desire to help people get the intellectual tools that hard times have denied them,” says Danielson, who, with an enthusiasm for ancient Greece, found the name of the scholarships—dubbed for the anonymous donor known as Homer whose gift started the program—to be a serendipitous connection.

“Education is the central pillar of civic and cultural life, without which democracy cannot succeed,” says Danielson. “We have the responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent the guttering candle of civilization from fading entirely, and this is the route I have chosen.”

Danielson’s career computerizing scientific measurements began during a 14-year stint in Hyde Park, where he immersed himself in music, broadcast radio, mountain climbing, and occasional motorcycle racing.

Entering the College in 1952, he spent much of his time working at WUCB, an unlicensed AM radio station in the basement of Burton-Judson Courts, for which he designed and built nearly all the electronics himself. He took a break from his studies to work at the Enrico Fermi Institute before becoming chief engineer at WFMT, Chicago’s classical music station.

Returning to school to finish his AB in physics, he also returned to the Fermi Institute, where he was responsible for carrying out chemical reactions in a vacuum.

After graduating he moved to the University of Washington, where he maintained and computerized a couple of mass spectrometers, then transformed the university’s electronics shop “from a place that fixed hot plates into a center where new equipment could be designed and built that did not exist elsewhere.”

More recently he’s become “an accidental capitalist.” In 1995, along with a chemist colleague from the University of Washington, he formed PhotoSense LLC, a venture that eventually led to an interlude in Colorado. PhotoSense, he says, “perfected new methods for measuring oxygen dissolved in matrices as diverse as paint, wastewater, and jet fuel.” After collaborations with NASA and the US Air Force, the company moved on to licensing its technology for use in water-purifying plants around the world.

He is most proud of his final project before retiring in 2007, a calibration system for the oxygen-sensor material his company developed. Essentially a nonambulatory robot, he says, “it uncomplainingly makes thousands of measurements, free of operator intervention or imprecation.”

An amateur astronomer and musician, since the ’70s Danielson has been recording data from earthquakes with a homemade seismograph, “keeping an ear to the bosom of Mother Earth and an eye on the heavens.” With thousands of hours of records from earthquakes as far away as Chile and Nepal, he’s turned the data into audible sound and has partnered with a professor at the University of Arizona who will turn that sound into music.

“Music is one of the highest—yet most mysterious—achievements of the human species, fully on par with mathematics and cosmology,” says Danielson. “If music can survive, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us.”

The Odyssey Scholarship Challenge is a $100 million plan to increase funding for college readiness programs in Chicago Public Schools; reduce undergraduate families’ payments for books, travel, and other activities; and provide resources for career advancement and mentorships. Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and Sir Michael Moritz are funding 50 percent of the enrichment plan. Alumni, parents, families, and friends are challenged to fund the remaining $50 million over five years. Planned gifts can help meet this challenge.

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