When Helen Schaefer joined the Poetry Center’s newly formed Development Committee in the late 1990s, plans for a new building were still in the formative stages. By the time I joined the Poetry Center as Executive Director in July 2002, she had become chair of that committee.
Her charge was to helm the capital campaign – identify potential donors and convince them of the worthiness of the project. Having known the Poetry Center since its inception, she was the right person for the job. She and her husband, John, arrived in Tucson in 1960, the same year the Poetry Center was dedicated, and as University President in the 1970s, John knew and worked with the Center’s founder, Ruth Stephan.
In the decades that followed, Helen saw for herself the growing disparity between the Center’s increasingly valuable collection of poetry books and the declining, substandard housing in which it was kept. She and her Development Committee cohort were adamant that the Poetry Center would have a new and permanent home.
As chair, Helen headed up the committee that hired Les Wallach and his architectural firm, Line and Space LLC. She was attracted by his bold, contemporary approach to design. She appreciated his understanding of place, and his use of materials native to the desert landscape.
There are many memorable moments in Helen’s leadership as chair of the Development Committee during my tenure at the Poetry Center, but none more riveting than her visit to then University of Arizona President Pete Likins’ office prior to construction.
The design plans had been finalized. Donors were lining up in support. But then a University design review board weighed in with concerns about the building’s non-traditional design. Where was the red brick? The possibility had also been floated that the Poetry Center might renovate an existing University facility instead of building new.
Helen called for a meeting with President Likins, an ally and friend. In his office Helen, who was known for her reserve and even tone under pressure, made herself very clear that the design was a settled matter. In this public-private partnership, she said, the private interests were only committing funds to the building as originally imagined by Les Wallach. I was in that room with College of Humanities Dean Charles Tatum and Associate Dean Dennis Evans. We were all taken aback by Helen’s forcefulness, but not by her passion.
The naming of the building in Helen’s honor was in part to recognize her generous volunteer and financial contributions. And, for me, it acknowledges her fierce defense of its design integrity and her resolve in giving us the building we have today.
Gail Browne is the former Executive Director of the Poetry Center.