Barrier-Breaking Engineer

illustration of Donald Watson head shot by Randy Glass

In the years preceding the civil rights movement, Donald Watson Sr. ’50 Eng dreamed big: He told himself that one day he’d lead a large civil engineering organization. But leadership roles were extremely limited for African Americans in the mid-1900s, and more than one university turned Watson away because of his race. That changed in 1945, when Penn State opened its doors to him, a life-changing development for the ambitious young man. “He received a great education at Penn State that helped him achieve some of his most important goals in life during a time when most persons of color were still fighting hard to knock down racial barriers,” says son Darryl Watson.

The first in his family to attend college, Watson was a founding member of the university’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. After college, he moved to California and began a 37-year career with the California Department of Transportation, rising to deputy director. He later was appointed executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority by the governor of New Jersey. “He was always positive and upbeat. He never let anything hold him back, no matter the challenge,” Darryl says.

Watson was honored as Black Engineer of the Year in 1988 by engineering deans from America’s historically Black colleges and universities, and was named an Alumni Fellow in 1989. He never forgot that his roots were blue and white. “He was a Nittany Lion all the way,” Darryl says. “His house was filled with Penn State memorabilia. Growing up, he continually stressed to us the importance of a good education, and that included attending college.”

Watson died Oct. 26, 2022, in Sacramento, Calif. He was 95 and was preceded in death by Wilma, his wife of 70 years. In addition to Darryl, survivors include son Donald Watson Jr. and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. —Andy Faught