Dona Hildebrand had no recollection of any previous visits to Colorado State University’s magnificent Mountain Campus when she made the 52-mile trek to the 1,600-acre treasure in the summer of 2018. All she knew was that the place held a special place in the hearts of her parents, Donald and Esther Harbison.
The Harbisons (Donald, B.S., Forest Management, ’26; and Esther, B.S., Home Economics, ’26) had spent considerable time at the Mountain Campus during its earliest years and had a deep love for the area. Now, more than 90 years later, Hildebrand, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who made her home in Colorado, is honoring her parents with a $1.2 million gift that will help CSU add the first academic building to the Mountain Campus in more than 50 years.
Hands-on learning at 9,000 feet
The Donald and Esther Harbison Experiential Learning Center will provide new educational opportunities for CSU students and the thousands of visitors drawn to the Mountain Campus annually.
“Dona’s gift to enable us to establish an experiential education center at the Mountain Campus is truly transformational,” said John Hayes, dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources. “Her generosity will create a facility where students can learn through innovative teaching techniques in a modern setting, while taking advantage of the remote nature of the campus. The new building will complement the great outdoor field experiences students have with outstanding new classroom facilities, and prepare students for their careers in meaningful ways.”
Donald and Esther Harbison were a unique couple in the early history of CSU, then known as Colorado Agricultural College. Esther was one of the few married women with children to attend college; she later wrote a book about her life. Donald utilized his CSU degree to become a forester.
Long ties to CSU, Fort Collins
Dona was one of five Harbison children. She graduated from Fort Collins High School and earned her teaching credential at CSU.
She enlisted in the Air Force, where she met her future husband, Floyd (Hildy) Hildebrand. They both earned degrees from the University of Maryland University College while stationed in Germany, and enjoyed long military careers. Dona earned a Bronze Star for her service in Vietnam and retired as a lieutenant colonel following a 24-year career. Floyd, a pilot who flew numerous combat missions in Vietnam, retired as a colonel before becoming a pilot for Japan Airlines. They retired to Monument, Colorado.
Hildebrand’s passion for education has never waned. She earned degrees from three universities and has made significant gifts to each to bolster student opportunities.
“I can remember how often my mother and father told us of their time at the Mountain Campus and the impact it had on them and their careers,” Hildebrand said. “They would share stories of their pleasurable and educational experiences. As someone who emphasizes education, the outdoors and experiential learning, it is my hope that the Donald and Esther Harbison Experiential Learning Center will provide a dynamic and enjoyable environment for students to learn while making lifelong friends and memories. The Mountain Campus is an extraordinary place and deserves facilities to foster the best possible natural resources education.”
A push to upgrade facilities
Hayes hopes Hildebrand’s gift inspires others to support the Mountain Campus as well. Thousands of students have spent time at the iconic campus, getting a hands-on education in a pristine setting while forming lifetime friendships.
“We’re very excited to break ground on the new teaching building, but this gift means so much more than that,” Hayes said. “This project has catalyzed a vision for enhancing teaching, learning and research at the Mountain Campus, and is the perfect kickoff to launch a new campaign focused on supporting those efforts and building upon the century-long legacy of learning the Mountain Campus offers.”
Students past and present are excited to see and experience the impact the Hildebrand gift will have on one of the nation’s most unique educational settings.
“The classes I took at the Mountain Campus were life-changing,” said Julianne Nikirk, a senior Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology major and president of the Warner College Council. “A new building for research and teaching at the Mountain Campus is really exciting – I think it will mean a lot to students and open up new opportunities for more classes and research.”
Even though Hildebrand did not attend CSU, her gift honoring her parents will be felt by generations of Rams to come.
“We are so grateful for Dona’s generous gift, and for the immediate and lasting impact it will have on our beloved CSU Mountain Campus,” said Kim Tobin, vice president for University Advancement. “Dona’s gift is a heartfelt tribute to her parents and their love for the Mountain Campus. This kind of philanthropy is a testament to the stalwart spirit of our CSU alumni and donors who, through the State Your Purpose campaign, have ensured state-of-the-art facilities will serve our students for generations to come.”