LOWELL -- When Don Pierson first came to Lowell in the 1980s, tasked with the mission of improving Lowell Public Schools, he only expected to stay for six months.
But six months turned into roughly three decades of educational work -- from an adviser for the public schools to vice provost of graduate education at UMass Lowell.
Pierson's commitment to education drew more than 100 people to the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center on Thursday, where the retiree was praised for his transformation of both lower and higher education.
In 1983, Sen. Paul Tsongas asked Pierson to evaluate Lowell's public schools and determine means for improvement.
"The outcome of that study was not so much an evaluation but a recommendation that for the schools to thrive, they really needed to embark upon partnerships with the university, with the business community, and with the new fledging national park," Pierson said.
As Pierson embarked on various positions at UMass Lowell -- as dean of the Graduate School of Education, an interim provost and later vice provost -- he made that goal a reality.
At UMass Lowell, Pierson helped roll out the Tsongas Industrial History Center, an educational asset to the city that allows students to learn more of Lowell's mill history.
"The way in which we educate our young people is a unique challenge in an urban environment," said U.S. Rep.
Niki Tsongas, who worked with Pierson on the center named after her late husband. "But Don heeded the call early on, and was willing to get to work on that."
Lowell National Historical Park Superintendent Celeste Bernardo recalled the vision one of her predecessors, Sandy Walter, had when LNHP acquired the Boott Cotton Mills in 1984.
"She was very energetic and she was going to make this happen," Bernardo said. "But she knew that the National Park Service didn't have the expertise.
So in 1984, she knew who to call, and that was Don."
The university later teamed up with LNHP to establish the Boott Cotton Mills as a museum.
When UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan appointed Pierson as interim provost in 2007, he did it in part because of Pierson's integrity.
"I needed someone who was going to be honest with me about what our challenges were on the academic side and what the potential solutions were," he said.
Pierson also maintained a connection with the city's public schools, working with former Superintendent George Tsapatsaris to create the Leadership Academy to train administrators in professional development.
"Our goal was to improve the quality of education in our public schools and give UMass Lowell students an opportunity to gain hands-on teaching training," Tsapatsaris said.
These programs, he said, transformed the district into a vibrant, "very good" school system.
"Don is a leader who combines long-term vision with the ability to get things done," he said. "He is truly an asset to the university, as well as the Lowell public schools."
And although Pierson lived outside of the city, he was praised for his immersion in it.
Pierson's son, Chris, noted that his father read The Sun every day.
"I remember going into the convenience store with him on the weekend, and the guy behind the counter would have the two issues that he missed, saved from Friday and Saturday," he said.
Even in his retirement, Pierson will still continue his oversight of UMass Lowell's transition to Division 1 in athletics.
"Any contributions that I've made have been possible only because of the teamwork here within the university and across the city," Pierson told the crowd. "This has been an honor and a pleasure, every step of the way."