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With a Doane degree in hand, Donn Crilly ‘50 set out in search of the world

With a Doane degree in hand, Donn Crilly ‘50 set out in search of the world

Headshot of Doane Alumni and Emeriti Trustee Don Crilly

Donn Crilly was so limbered up and inspired, he could go anywhere and do anything.

He did.

Backpacking his degree from Doane College in 1950, a medical degree from the Nebraska Medical Center, six months at a hospital in Kansas City and five more years at the Mayo Clinic, Crilly went in search of the world.

“Maybe it would be easier if we just listed continents, rather than countries he’s been to,” said his wife, Sylvia. “India, China, Japan, Guatemala, Africa, everywhere in Europe. Iceland, Norway, Sweden – and none of those were as cold as Superior (Neb.) right now.”

He did everything from pioneering (the then new field) of vascular surgery to working dozens of archeology digs. He keeps reading, studying and growing.

That’s how he got to the project of writing the weighty and heralded 1,100-page “A History of the World.”

“It starts from the primordial soup to 1945,” Sylvia described the book that was started 20 years before it was published in 2011.

He began with notes from his travels, his study, his education and settled on an original text of 525,000 words.

How much did he edit?

“A lot,” Donn said. “Quite a lot.” Sylvia added, “The editors said that if we’re going to get this moving to where somebody can read it, you’re going to have to make cuts.

“It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not a light read. Many people are surprised how well-written it is. Readable and very serious, not to where you get bogged down.”

Donn explained his efforts: “A Journey, many years in duration. I felt quite strongly knowing what was happening in different parts of the world at roughly the same time is necessary to understand geo-political issues that, at times, plague us until the present day.”

Science, the human psyche, belief systems of Western cultures, histories of Asia, Africa and Crilly’s curiosity fueled his drive to learn more.

Cris Trautner, owner of Infusion Media in Lincoln, helped guide Crilly through the editing, layout and eventual on-demand printing.

“We spent a little over a year working on the book, meeting every two weeks and by going to a smaller than usual typeface, we hit 1,046 pages,” Trautner said. “It was a big project but one that, if you put in the time, you will come out with a lot of knowledge.”

Crilly got a jump start on his project in the 1960s when he visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, joining the famous “early human beginnings,” dig that was started by Louis and Mary Leakey.

“I guess if you’re alive, the process of learning never stops,” he said. Writing the book led to more learning.


“Because I was driven to try and put it all together,” Crilly said. Crilly learned to love charts, maps and timelines as a kid in Superior. He added to his love of history, science, human psychology and language relationships and digging into “people patterns.”

He picked up a passion for history from grading papers for Dr. Ken Rossman’s history classes at Doane College.

He was certainly driven by science classes taught by Dr. Katie Buell. Crilly ended up with a double major in biology and chemistry. He also initiated astronomy studies with the telescope in the Doane observatory.

Doane’s music professor, James Bastien, a classmate of Crilly, inspired Crilly to learn piano. “Donn would come home from a difficult surgery or a tough rescue and just sit down at the piano to relax,” Sylvia said.

Before the book and the research, Crilly earned his Doane diploma in 1950. He chased his love of learning to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha to pursue his future as a doctor.

An internship in Kansas City and five years at the Mayo Clinic led to the Superior, Nebraska son of a newspaper publisher to become one of the first vascular surgeons in the state.

He spent five years working with the University hospital in Salzburg, Austria, and returned to the US to take his vascular surgeon expertise to the San Francisco area for 33 years.

He recently retired after 40 years from the Doane board of Trustees. Education is still very important.

As for the future of Doane and higher learning in general, Crilly said, “Changes. I generally dislike change, heaven forbid, but we must be realistic.

“Medieval universities taught what was called Trivium and the Quadrivium,” he said. “The Renaissance brought the Humanities, with a focus on classics and theology to the graduate level.

“Starting in the 1830s women were finally allowed to attend some places of higher learning (at least in the western world).

“I feel there is a need to look at the future and what will be thought of as relevant, no matter which direction this road shall lead us,” Crilly said. “We must never forget to teach students How and Why … of yes, and to think.”