Joe Donelan '72, Founder of the Office of Community-Based Learning, Reflects on Supporting Holy Cross

Owner of premier winery in Sonoma Valley expects nothing less than the best for his alma mater

"Learning about wine is a celebration of life,” explains Joseph P. Donelan II ’72, the larger-than-life founder of Donelan Family Wines, a boutique winery in Santa Rosa, California.

Indeed, this was motivation enough for Donelan to leave his executive position in the paper industry in 2000 and pursue his passion for wine full time.

Today, he and his family own and operate one of Sonoma Valley’s premier wineries, consistently producing acclaimed Syrah, pinot noir, chardonnay and a variety of blends. Donelan and his team work tirelessly to create only the highest quality wines — and their commitment to excellence is recognized by connoisseurs and critics alike. In fact, two Donelan wines have been awarded the exceedingly rare rating of 100 points by renowned wine critic Robert Parker.

Building a Family Business

Donelan and his wife, Chris, are parents to four children: Keltie, Tripp, Cushing and Moriah. Tripp serves as the winery’s director of sales, and Cushing, the director of marketing.

For Donelan, operating a family winery is a perfect fit with his personal values and goals: “I like meeting people, learning about what they do and why,” he says. “I have a sense of adventure, and I wanted to build something from the ground up.”

A self-described teacher at heart, Donelan strives to share his deep knowledge of — and appreciation for — wine with each customer. Guiding people through their discovery of great wine is a philosophy that appears on the label of every bottle he produces: “Wine is a journey not a destination.”

In keeping with this principle, Donelan and his team pride themselves on offering exceptional customer service. Whether on a tasting visit to the winery or at one of the many wine dinners Donelan hosts around the world, customers delight in their many opportunities to learn firsthand from the Donelans.

“We hope they’ll say it’s among the best experiences they’ve ever had,” says Donelan. “If I could bring joy to people every day with a bottle of wine, that’s pretty powerful.”

Equal to the company’s commitment to outstanding service is its dedication to superior quality. Case in point: In 2011, the company planned to make 6,500 cases of wine but only released 3,900 because Donelan did not feel the wines were up to par. And while it was a financial loss to his company, Donelan simply was unwilling to sacrifice quality.

Supporting an "Undiscovered Gem"

Is it any wonder, then, that a man as discerning as Joe Donelan would want only the best for Holy Cross — and its students?

A former trustee and longtime benefactor of the College, Donelan is quick to point out the many advantages of a Holy Cross education — from its innovative program for first-year students to its exceptionally strong and engaged faculty body.

“I think Holy Cross is an undiscovered gem … students can learn a lot about themselves and how they can change the world,” he says. “Everything to me is about changing the world.”

It’s that perspective that drives him to give back to the College — to give its students, in his words, an “unfair advantage” by providing them with the education and the real-world experiences that will shape their perspective. That’s why he established the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning with a generous endowment in 2000, enabling faculty and students to combine challenging course work with experiential learning in the Worcester community.

“The liberal arts teach us how to think. I believe students who participate in community-based learning can learn firsthand about the richness of life by helping others — and in turn, their lives will be totally changed forever,” Donelan says.

The idea for the office grew out of Donelan’s own student experience, when he decided to spend his junior year abroad in Vienna. That exposure — and his personal interest in understanding the history and societal attitudes that led to the Holocaust — broadened his understanding of the world and his responsibility to be a positive force within it. Donelan returned to campus and immersed himself in all that the city of Worcester had to offer.

“To me, the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning allows students to understand how the world works, how a city works — good and bad — and to work with professors who really want to enhance their experience to learn and grow and develop,” explains Donelan, who currently serves on the College’s Advisory Board. “In learning and helping others, one becomes more conscious of the people around them and what needs to be done.”

Since the office opened in September 2001, more than 6,000 students have participated in community-based learning courses, according to Donelan Office Director Michelle Sterk Barrett.

“Year after year, I’ve witnessed the powerful way in which students, faculty and community partners are deeply impacted by the opportunity to be involved with community-based learning — an opportunity that would not be possible without the generosity of Joe Donelan,” she says.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, a total of 39 courses offered contained a community-based learning component, which put 705 Holy Cross students out in the Worcester community. Faculty members that collaborate with Sterk Barrett say the unique opportunities offered by the Donelan Office transform the classroom experience for their students.

And that, says Donelan, is just what he envisioned.

“We all have a responsibility to give back. And to do that, students need to get out into the world, understand how it works and then decide how to change it.”

Written by Rebecca Smith '99 and Kimberly Staley '99 for the Spring 2017 issue of Holy Cross Magazine

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