In Memoriam: Helen S. Schaefer

September 8th, 2022

Helen S. Schaefer, the longtime board member and namesake of the University of Arizona Poetry Center who championed arts, cultural and educational organizations across the university and Southern Arizona, died Sept. 1. She was 89.


Helen S. Schaefer and her husband, University of Arizona President Emeritus John P. Schaefer, spent more than 60 years supporting arts and cultural organizations in Tucson, volunteering on boards and making significant financial contributions.


The Poetry Center building was dedicated in Helen's name in 2004. John P. Schaefer, who served as president from 1971 to 1982, is the namesake of the university's Center for Creative Photography, which he helped establish during his time as president.


"Dr. Helen Schaefer was a powerhouse – a scientist and teacher, community leader, and mother of two," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "The University of Arizona community has lost a true champion and leader who spent her life in exploration and in service to others. I know I join many in the Wildcat family who will remember her fondly. My thoughts and condolences are with John and their family."


Helen was the former chair of the College of Humanities Advisory Board and a longtime member of the Poetry Center Development Committee, where she led the successful fundraising efforts for a new facility, which is named in her honor.


“The University of Arizona College of Humanities and the University of Arizona Poetry Center have lost one of their champions. It was such a gift and honor to have known Helen Schaefer,” said Alain-Philippe Durand, Dorrance Dean of the College of Humanities. “Her dedication to the University and Poetry Center has impacted thousands and we are immensely grateful to her. She will remain forever in our hearts.”


For a much-needed building dedicated to housing the world-renowned poetry collection, Helen ultimately selected architect Les Wallach and his firm, Line and Space LLC, for the “absolutely terrific” design.


“We were really thrilled with it. It’s just so different and intriguing,” Helen told Archive Tucson, an oral history project from University Libraries’ Special Collections.


The building was named in Helen’s honor to recognize her generous volunteer and financial contributions, as well as her “fierce defense” of the Poetry Center’s vision and her resolve in creating the building that’s so renowned today, said Gail Browne, former Executive Director of the Poetry Center.


Helen Schaefer’s leadership even after the building’s competition was remarkable, said Tyler Meier, current Executive Director of the Poetry Center.


“She was a staunch supporter of the vision for what the Poetry Center could be, and proud of all that we’ve accomplished and aspire to become.  She was committed to broad access to cultural experiences, and worked to ensure that access was universal and available to as many as possible through her volunteering and philanthropy,” he said. “I will miss our conversations when she delighted in what was happening at the Poetry Center—whether a particular visit from a poet, or an acquisition, or a new youth program, or a collaboration across campus or across the community. She leaves a bright and lasting legacy for all of us, and we are proud to carry forward the work of the Poetry Center in a world-class facility that bears her name.”


Helen was a member of numerous university groups that recognize influential donors, including the University of Arizona Foundation's Founders Society, which recognizes donors whose cumulative, lifetime giving reaches $500,000 or more. She was also a member of the foundation's National Leadership Council and President's Club, and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Magellan Circle.


The college's Women in Science Engineering Program, known as WISE, offers its Helen S. Schaefer Scholarship to women who are entering their sophomore, junior or senior year of study at the university with a major in science, engineering or mathematics. Helen served on WISE's advisory board.


The Schaefers also have an endowment fund for University Libraries, which helps acquire materials for the libraries' Special Collections.


"It is with sincere condolences that our university and donor community grieves the passing of Helen Schaefer," said JP Roczniak, president and CEO of the University of Arizona Foundation. "Helen was a generous philanthropist, and it was an honor to know her as part of our donor community. Her invaluable service and the dedication of the Helen S. Schaefer Building leave a lasting legacy in remembrance of her passion and love for higher education."


Helen served on several other boards including the League of Women Voters, United Way, Tucson Symphony Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra League, now known as the League of American Orchestras.


Born in 1933 in Evanston, Illinois, she studied chemistry at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. She continued her studies in chemistry at the University of Illinois, where she met John.


The Schaefers moved to Tucson in 1960, when John joined the Department of Chemistry faculty. Helen completed her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois in the 1970s.

Completing her doctoral studies had long been a personal goal, not a matter of career advancement, Helen told Archive Tucson.


"I just mostly did it for my satisfaction, to know that I had actually finished something," she said. "I didn't like leaving something undone."


Helen Schaefer is survived by her husband, as well as daughters Ann Schaefer-Reid (Andy Reid) and Susan Kliman (Douglas Kliman) and grandson Randall Kliman, twin sister Caroline Siegel, and sister-in-law Anita Meyer.