The Poetry Center's founder, Ruth Walgreen Stephan (1910-1974), was a writer and philanthropist. She grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern University. Her first notable publication, a poem titled “Identity,” appeared in Harper’s in 1937. Her work soon began appearing in other leading magazines, such as Poetry and Forum. In the 1940s and 1950s, she wrote both poetry and novels (The Flight and My Crown, My Love) and, with her husband, the artist John Stephan, published an influential international quarterly of art and literature called The Tiger’s Eye. After spending a year in Peru, she compiled and translated the first English language collection of Quechua songs and tales, and produced a series of records, The Spoken Anthology of American Literature, for international audiences. She also lived in Japan and made a documentary film on Zen Buddhism.

Ruth began visiting Tucson in the 1940s after meeting Ada McCormick. She often stayed in a cottage near the UA campus. In 1960, she presented the property to the University of Arizona. If the Poetry Center’s initial home was modest, its founder’s vision was not. She wanted to create a welcoming place and a distinguished collection that would encourage students, faculty, and community members 'to encounter poetry without intermediaries.' Her collection focused on contemporary poetry in English and also included translations of great poets from around the world. She seeded the collection with a gift of several hundred books.

Robert Frost and Ruth Stephan

In 1960, Robert Frost arrived in Tucson by train to read at the dedication of the new Poetry Center on November 17. Ruth Stephan presided at the dedication with Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall and University President Richard Harvill. During this historic visit, Congressman Udall asked Frost to consider reading at the upcoming inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

For a decade after her initial gift, Ruth Stephan made additional donations of land, stocks, cash, and books to the Center. Intending for the collection to have national and international significance, she regularly shopped for books for the Center on her journeys, and she urged the staff to acquire materials demonstrating the widest possible range of poetry, from its known beginnings in chant and song to contemporary experiments.

The Poetry Center’s Reading and Lecture Series began in 1962, inaugurated by Stanley Kunitz. Since that time more than 1,000 writers have read or lectured in the series, including most major contemporary U.S. poets, significant international visitors, and emerging artists.

Visiting writers were invited to stay in the Poet’s Cottage (Ms. Stephan donated a second house which became the library). Over the front door of the cottage, a wrought-iron legend read, 'The Fieries and the Snuffies,' a lyric from a cowboy song, 'I Ride an Old Paint.' Ruth Stephan wrote that poets are fieries and snuffies. 'They work in fiery bursts of creativity and then snuff out most of the results with an eraser.' Inside the cottage, visiting writers began a tradition of inscribing the walls with signatures and aphorisms. In April 1984, Denise Levertov wrote this offhand rhyme above the kitchen table: 'Poet-ponies sniff the breeze; / They scent a friendly stable / Where fiery, snuffy, at their ease, / Can whinny as they please – / No bit or bridle there to tease / And oats upon the table.'

Ruth Stephan served as an active member of the Poetry Center’s advisory board until shortly before her death in 1974. Over the years, the Center has benefited from the support of the University of Arizona, the English Department, and College of Humanities. Through the leadership of its directors, the Poetry Center has grown from a modest library collection and regional literary arts center into an international destination for the study and enjoyment of poetry. Lawrence Muir, LaVerne Harrell Clark, Richard Shelton, Mary Louise Robins, John Weston, and Robert Longoni provided guidance in the Center’s first decade. Lois Shelton served the Poetry Center from 1970 to 1990, during which time the library collection was significantly expanded and hundreds of writers visited. She shepherded the Poetry Center from the original cottages into a temporary facility on Cherry Avenue and developed a proposal for the creation of a permanent home. From 1990 to 2000, director Alison Hawthorne Deming initiated new programming for the Poetry Center, including educational outreach activities and a summer residency for emerging writers. She played an integral role in establishing the architectural program and funding strategy for the new building that the Poetry Center now inhabits. Jim Paul helped to launch the capital campaign in 2000, and Gail Browne was hired in 2002 to complete the campaign and to provide oversight for the design and construction of the new facility.

In 2004, then UA president Peter A. Likins announced that the Poetry Center’s new home would be named for Tucson arts advocate and chair of the Poetry Center’s Development Committee, Helen S. Schaefer. Construction began May 2006 and was completed August 2007. In the new building, Poetry Center literary programs and collaborations have grown exponentially. The Poetry Center serves academic, community, and youth populations through its special collections library, suite of programs, and partnerships.