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Lives Lived: Donald R. Woods, 78 Add to ...

Husband, father, grandfather, professor, encourager. Born April 17, 1935, in Sarnia, Ont.; died April 26, 2013, in Waterdown, Ont., of a heart attack, aged 78.

In the engineering department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Don Woods was known as Mr. Problem-Based Learning. As a professor of chemical engineering at McMaster from 1964 to 2000, he developed innovative teaching methods, wrote many books and articles and gave more than 500 workshops worldwide.

At a time when the university lecture hall was a place where students sat and listened to a professor, Don applied a more interactive, hands-on approach. He expected students to talk and participate in his classes as they brainstormed and solved problems, saying to them, “Now turn and talk to your neighbour about this problem – noise level up!” He won many teaching awards and inspired people with his wisdom and encouragement.

Born in Sarnia, Ont., Don was the only child of Robert and Elva Woods. When he was 12, the family moved to Winchester, Ont., south of Ottawa, where his father bought and ran a hardware store. Summers spent helping his dad in the store ignited Don’s interest in working with his hands.

After graduating from Queen’s University in Kingston in 1957, Don earned a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961. While at Wisconsin he met Diane, a fellow graduate student, and they married in 1961.

Don loved to work with his hands and enjoyed oil painting in his spare time. An avid do-it-yourselfer, he designed and built many shelves and cupboards as he remodelled their first home bit by bit. He also taught his three children – Russell, Suzi and Cynthia – how to use power tools and do basic carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing and other repair jobs. Before being allowed to take the car out on their own, they had to master how to check and change the oil and how to change a tire.

When Russell died suddenly from an accident in 1982, Don and the family leaned into their Christian faith. Rather than letting that experience weaken them, they reached out to others who had lost loved ones.

A deeply committed family man, Don delighted in his five grandchildren. He enjoyed square dancing with Diane, playing banjo with the local fiddler’s group and playing badminton. He was a charter member of the Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society, and co-authored two books on the history of Waterdown. Many remember the enthusiastic singsongs he led at the university and the Sunday school where he taught for many years. Known for his hugs, he loved to brighten people’s days and made a point of remembering birthdays at work – whether a janitor, secretary, technician or professor.

In 1996, Don and Diane moved from the heart of Waterdown, Ont., where they lived for more than 30 years, to a new subdivision at the edge of town. As each new family moved in they would introduce themselves and help them meet other neighbours. Their annual neighbourhood potluck dessert parties helped build the community.

Don truly cared about people. With his infectious smile, he was always incredibly enthusiastic, energetic and down to earth.

Cynthia Veals is Don’s daughter.


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