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Nurturing the future

Dan and Evelyn Simon on their vision for healing, health, and science

People behind the science

Date: July 11, 2023
Photo credit: Brandon Tigrett

Photo credit: Brandon Tigrett

Members of the Weizmann community often describe the campus as a kind of kibbutz. Indeed, it is the unique feeling of community at the Weizmann Institute that brings so many brilliant, passionate minds together. Thanks to Dan and Evelyn Simon, longtime friends of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, a new wellness complex on campus will be a hub of health and camaraderie that will plant seeds of collaboration and innovation for years to come.

The story of Dan and Evelyn themselves involves illness and healing, an escape from Nazi Germany, a deep commitment to Israel and Jewish causes, and a profound dedication to helping others. It is about resilience, gratitude, and overcoming the odds. And it celebrates the couple’s connection to the natural world, their passion for art and music, kindness and community, and a lifetime together filled with laughter and love.

It starts with people

Most recently, the Simons have dedicated themselves to creating the best environment for the Weizmann research community to thrive. For many, this might mean labs, equipment, buildings—the sophisticated infrastructure needed for the makings of excellent science. However, understanding that innovation begins with people, Dan and Evelyn have turned their focus to helping with life outside scientific spaces.

In establishing the Daniel J. and Evelyn G. Simon Health and Wellness Complex with a recent transformational leadership gift, they will honor the well-being of the entire Weizmann Institute community.

“The Weizmann Institute is doing so much for the whole world, and in so many fields,” says Evelyn, a creative arts psychotherapist. “It’s astounding. We believe in their work and their mission, and we like how they’re going about it. The scientists, the students, and everybody are giving so much to the whole world, and they need to be nurtured.”
“Because Weizmann does a lot of everything,” says Dan, a former food industry executive, “we thought the infrastructure was also very important. And that’s why we chose to donate not to a particular fund—but to something that people from all over campus could enjoy.”

The new complex

The Daniel J. and Evelyn G. Simon Health and Wellness Complex will be a welcoming place for scientists, students, staff, and their families—providing a shared space for creative discussion and collaboration. Like the Institute’s on-campus residential neighborhoods and daycare centers, this expansive facility will promote the physical and mental fitness of the members of the Weizmann community by offering a variety of indoor and outdoor exercise, sports, and relaxation options, including spaces for yoga, healthy eating, and meditation.

“We are envisioning a place that uses natural materials, has lots of light and flexible space, and can be used for multiple purposes,” explains Dan. “A place for movement and a place for quiet meditation so everybody can find whatever they need to enrich their lives and recharge, because they can only do their finest work if they’re in the best mental and physical place for themselves.”

“The new complex will be a way for people to gather together outside the lab, sit and have a cup of coffee or tea, watch their kids play, and engage in whatever sport or activity they find regenerative. Lots of ideas are formulated that way. It’s kind of magical to provide an atmosphere where this kind of cross-referencing, think tank, or ideas can be shared.”
“We’re creating this space so that scientists and students can find what they need for themselves and feel supported so they can do their absolute best work,” Evelyn continues. “We want to encourage their phenomenal work in any way possible.”

An overdue overhaul

The Simon’s visionary gift will enable the Weizmann Institute to fully renovate and reimagine the existing facility, the Meyer W. and Shirley Weisgal Recreation Center, which opened some 50 years ago. It had been named by the Institute in honor of Meyer Weisgal, who served as Weizmann President from 1966 until 1969, and his wife Shirley, both of whom were active members of the on-campus community.

Construction plans for the new complex involve the renovation of much of the aging infrastructure and include adding state-of-the-art health and wellness amenities that will appeal to the newest generation of scientists and students and will meet the needs of the community for many years to come.

It will also be built using a green and sustainable design, exemplifying the Green Campus vision—a key element of Weizmann’s new flagship, the Institute for Environmental Sustainability. Integrating the latest breakthroughs in sustainable environments, this flagship initiative and the construction of the Daniel J. and Evelyn G. Simon Health and Wellness Complex will help shape a model green campus that is ecologically responsible and serves as an educational platform to raise awareness and share best practices.

“Evelyn and Dan share our deeply held belief that outstanding science is driven, in great part, by a vibrant campus community that prioritizes a healthy lifestyle and continuous dialogue and interaction among scientists and among their families,” says Prof. Alon Chen, President of the Weizmann Institute. “Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the outcome of an ecosystem. I’m so grateful the Simons have pledged this incredibly generous gift to support that vision.”

Legacy of impact

Dan and Evelyn were also among the first supporters of the Pennie and Gary Abramson Family International Residence, a state-of-the-art housing facility for students and postdocs currently under construction.

“We’ve always admired Weizmann. The first time we went there we were very impressed,” Dan recalls. Evelyn adds how humble and down to earth they have found the Weizmann professors. Members of the Institute’s exclusive President’s Circle, they also appreciate how Weizmann encourages the freedom to explore.
“The Institute gives their students and their scientists a lot of leeway,” says Evelyn. “If they have an idea about something and it’s a little out of the box, okay, so be it. If that’s what you think is going to reap some benefits, then give it a try. That’s how I work with the creative arts and with people, so this approach feels very comfortable.”

In 2021, the Simons honored Evelyn’s parents, Erich and Irma Gottlieb, by dedicating a bench in the Weizmann Institute’s community garden in their memory.

From Shanghai to Chicago

In the 1930s, with the rise of antisemitic violence and warnings from friends, it was clear to Evelyn’s mother’s family in Germany and her father’s family in Austria that they needed to leave Europe and escape the Nazis. Separately, they fled to Shanghai, China, their only viable option. Her parents met each other in 1940 while working at a camp created for refugee children and married in June 1941. Evelyn was born in Shanghai and moved to the United States with her parents, via an army transport ship, when she was a little over a year old.

“My father was hired by the American government because he spoke Chinese,” she recalls. “He received the Medal of Freedom from Truman in 1945 because he was able to keep the supply lines on the China-Burma-India Road open so that American trucks could get supplies through to U.S. troops and the Flying Tigers.” (A group of American aviators hired by China to fight the Japanese invasion.)

Her family settled in the Chicago area. It was a community of Holocaust survivors who got together and created an extended family for each other.

Years later, Dan and Evelyn returned to Shanghai to see where she was born. They visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, dedicated to the 20,000 men, women, and children who fled to the Chinese city during World War II.
In 2021, the Simons honored Evelyn’s parents, Erich and Irma Gottlieb, by dedicating a bench in the Weizmann Institute’s community garden in their memory.

Paper and linen

Dan and Evelyn both grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and even attended the same high school. But they didn’t start dating until they met again at their 10-year high school reunion.
A phone call a few weeks later led to their first date. Evelyn had tickets to see Luciano Pavarotti in concert. At that time, Dan had no idea who the iconic opera singer was.
“At the end of the concert, Dan was clapping so delightedly, I thought, ‘Oh, wow! I found somebody who loves opera and classical music.’ Months later, laughingly, he told me, ‘Oh, my foot had fallen asleep, and I was trying to wake it up.’”
For their second date, they went to the Lincoln Park Zoo followed by brunch at Evelyn’s—complete with linen and china.

“Dan asked me, ‘Don’t you like paper products?’ and I said, ‘Paper products? Oh, no, I think linen is so much nicer,” remembers Evelyn. “And then he said, ‘Do you know what I do for a living?’ When I said, ‘No,’ he said, ‘Well, I sell paper goods.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear. I’ll never see this man again.’”
They married five months later.

Dan, it turned out, had never expected to get married. In 1971, he was diagnosed with leukemia and the doctor gave him one to three years to live. “I was a confirmed bachelor because I didn’t want to leave a young widow,” he says. “But then we fell in love, and my confirmed bachelorhood was over.”
“This is how our relationship has been,” Evelyn says with a smile. “We’ve had great sadness and a lot of really tough times to deal with, but Dan has a wonderful sense of humor and I think that kept us afloat a lot of the time.”

In 1981, the couple relocated from Chicago to Phoenix when Dan’s company expanded its distribution and storage facilities to Arizona. “The business needed someone here,” Dan says. “I volunteered and we happily moved.” While he retired at an early age due to his health, he was lucky enough to have survived a bone marrow transplant in 1995.
“We spent four-and-a-half months in isolation in the hospital,” remembers Evelyn. “We were masked and gloved the whole time. We gave up everything to keep him alive, that was our sole focus.”

Following the hospital stay, Dan spent more than three years recuperating in their home in isolation. “And I’m now leukemia-free,” he states.

True to Dan’s character, he found a meaningful way to honor this personal triumph. Years earlier, on the day of his bar mitzvah, Dan had been sick with a high fever and was unable to properly mark the special occasion. So, 13 years after his transplant, he decided to celebrate a “second bar mitzvah” at Congregation Kehillah, a synagogue he and Evelyn helped found in Phoenix. For the occasion, Dan, who was 51 at the time, hand-wove two tallitot (prayer shawls) from silk—one for him and one for Evelyn.

Favorite things

Now married for 47 years, Dan and Evelyn love the outdoors, and frequently visit flower gardens, open markets, and outdoor museums. The couple are founding members of the Musical Instrument Museum and members of the Desert Botanical Garden, both in Phoenix.

Dan is a longtime supporter of the arts and many Jewish groups. He’s earned Master Points in backgammon, and, before the transplant, loved to garden and weave. Evelyn is a life member of Hadassah and serves on the advisory board of Gesher Disability Resources in Scottsdale. She is also active in numerous community groups and enjoys playing autoharp, writing, crocheting, and creating watercolors and collage. In her work as a creative arts psychotherapist, Evelyn frequently helps cancer patients and victims of abuse.

“Sometimes people are so traumatized they cannot find words to describe their pain, so the best way to work through that trauma is through a creative modality such as writing, movement, art, or music,” she explains.

With their deep appreciation for health and wellness, nature, and community, Dan and Evelyn are delighted to know that their legacy gift will provide an extraordinary new space to nurture the Weizmann family. The Daniel J. and Evelyn G. Simon Health and Wellness Complex will connect the nearly 3,000 members of the Institute’s community—and their families—supporting their bodies, minds, and spirits. In this way, the Simons will play an integral role in inspiring world-class science in Israel for generations to come.

The Institute will hold a naming ceremony for the Health and Wellness Complex once the renovation begins.