by Lou Mancinelli
If you’ve shopped at Weavers Way in Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill in the past six years, you may have noticed a kind, gentle and vibrant gentleman with a goatee and a mustache that waves like a bird. That’s geoscientist, former professor, oceanographer and Philadelphia public school chemistry teacher, as well a third-degree Aikido black belt, 69-year-old Don McGuire.
“I couldn’t stand not working,” said McGuire, a 21-year Mt. Airy resident who retired from teaching in the Philadelphia public schools after eight years in 2008, and that August started to work at Weavers Way for 32 hours a week.
His gumption is a lesson that took him 55 years to truly learn. McGuire hiked barefoot across jagged volcanic rock searching for samples, earned a Ph.D. in geoscience from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, analyzed asbestos and the ocean, and taught at Philadelphia University before the turn of the century. But the hardest job he’s ever had was teaching chemistry in Philadelphia.
“I learned my teaching chops at the university,” said McGuire, “but teaching high school took everything I had.”
Raised in Hawaii, where his father, also a professor, bred tropical produce like lima beans and watermelons through his work at the University of Hawaii (UH) in the 1950s, McGuire is cutting his hours down at Weavers Way beginning this April. Currently, analyzing invoices from the meat/poultry/fish departments in both stores is one part of his job, but after April that will be his entire job.
But his career has been a long one full of reinvigoration and continuing studies. “I found some stones,” McGuire said about how as a young boy living in Hawaii he explored sites where volcanoes once erupted and generated an interest that would evolve into an education. He had found feldspar, a piece of crystal stuck to basalt, or rock formed from cooled lava. He asked his dad what it was, but his dad dealt in plants, so he told his young son to ask the neighbor, a geologist.
In Hawaii, McGuire attended the elite Punahou School, the same school Barack Obama attended. He did so well on his National Merit Scholarship tests he got a call from Wesleyan University in Connecticut asking him to enroll.
So McGuire nearly crossed the globe and went from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the middle of the Northeastern continental U.S. At Wesleyan, McGuire thought he’d study chemistry but switched to geology. When he graduated in 1966, the counterculture revolution was “happening right behind me.”
But McGuire’s interests were more in studying patterns of how the earth had changed over millions of years. So as the nation was swept with the summer of love in 1967, McGuire headed back to the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics, where he earned a Masters degree in geosciences in 1969.
This was the time of the Vietnam War, so after school McGuire volunteered for the Coast Guard, where he spent three years in the office of research and development, specifying instrumentation for automated ocean weather stations. After the Coast Guard, he went to work as an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also in Washington, D.C.
In 1982, when McGuire married Janet Boys, his new wife took a job with the Bank of New Zealand, so McGuire moved there with her and landed a staff job in the geology department at Victoria University of Wellington.
After three years he cashed in a pension he’d built up and financed his Ph.D. studies in geosciences at Victoria, which he earned in 1990. Then it was back to D.C., where he worked various jobs, from asbestos analysis to jewelry design in the Bethesda, Md. area.
His wife’s new job with the Red Cross brought the couple to Mt. Airy in 1993. And the following year, McGuire started to teach as an adjunct professor of environmental studies at the former Philadelphia Textile College of Arts and Sciences, now called Philadelphia University. But with the turn of the century, McGuire went back to school and earned a Masters in education technology at age 56 from Temple University in 2001, which paved the way for his years in the Philadelphia public school system.
McGuire has good genes; his mom is 93, and her mom lived to be 97. But perhaps his vigor comes from his attitude and his outlook. He’s still always learning technology. He uses an iPhone (no Facebook or email), and he and his wife have five computers around the house. He Skypes to keep up with his grandkids, the children of his only child (from his first marriage), who live in Germany.
He’s humble about his work ethic. It’s about survival. “I went to work and stayed at work because I needed to.”
He jokes that working at Weavers Way has provided all the things experts say a senior citizen needs to stay healthy and sharp. He socializes, learns new things and exercises, “and they pay you too,” he said. “There’s a good thing about working … Effort will always pay off. The more you do, the more you learn, the more capital you can apply to anything you do. That was a hard lesson. It took me a long time to learn that.”
Speaking of more work, McGuire and his wife live in an old Victorian home that needs some fixing up before the two can move to a more manageable space. McGuire also has old lava rocks and pieces of meteorites and such lying around at home.
For the past few years, McGuire and his wife have been involved with the local Wissahickon Village “Co-housing” (WVC) efforts. According to McGuire, 18 families involved with WVC have been working closely with local developer Ken Weinstein, about renovating the school building at the Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church into an urban co-housing site. Weinstein recently purchased the school and site.
But the real reason McGuire’s cutting his hours down six to 14 a week? “Have you heard of a honey-do list?”