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Helen Schaefer remembers her love of chemistry, poetry and community | Subscriber

She had a hotly contested doctorate. in chemistry, but Helen Schaefer was probably best known in Tucson for her love and generous support of the arts and education.

Schaefer was a regular on the shows and on the board of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. She sang for years with the University of Arizona Community Chorus. And when the UA Poetry Center opened in its glittering new home in 2007, thanks to his tireless fundraising leadership, the building was named in his honor.

Schaefer died Thursday at her home in Tucson after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was 89 years old.

“The University of Arizona community has lost a true champion and leader who spent her life exploring and serving others,” UA President Robert Robbins said in a written statement. . “Dr. Helen Schaefer was a powerhouse – a scientist and teacher, community leader and mother of two.

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She was born Helen Marie Schwarz on April 26, 1933, and grew up in a cultured, educated, and musical family in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois.

She played the piano and sang, and her twin sister, Caroline, played the violin.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where she was one of three graduate students in her academic field. .

She met and began dating a fellow chemistry student in the summer of 1957. When asked about it 65 years later, John Schaefer said he was attracted to her beauty, sophistication, and intellect.

They married and moved west in 1958, after earning a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship that landed him a position at the California Institute of Technology.

She was still working on her doctorate. a physical chemistry thesis at the time, so she carried her lab equipment with her and tried to finish as John began his career, first at Caltech and then at the University of California, Berkeley.

“She was a lot smarter than me,” said John, who served as AU president from 1971 to 1982. “If there’s one piece of advice I would give young men, it’s to marry a woman who is smarter than you.”

VLNTR for life

The Schaefers traded California for Tucson in 1960, lured by better opportunities for career advancement in the growing university here.

“They camped at the Grand Canyon on the way down,” said Susan Schaefer Kliman, John and Helen’s youngest daughter.

It didn’t take Tucson long to win the couple over.

“They fell in love with it. My mom loved the heat,” Kliman said. “They never really considered moving anywhere else.”

The Schaefers first worked at UA — he as an assistant professor and she as a teaching assistant — but was forced to quit the following year due to nepotism rules. university that prohibited spouses from working in the same department.

After that, she put aside her unfinished thesis to start a family and champion the cause of their adoptive home. “She started to become very active in the community,” John said.

When Schaefer was not driving her daughters to swim meets, she served on the YWCA and YMCA Board of Directors. When her daughters joined the Girl Scouts, she joined the group’s town council.

For more than five decades, she has given her time – and sometimes led – too many community councils to name, including those devoted to school desegregation, child welfare, higher education, care health, arts and women in science.

For years, John said, the custom UA license plate on his car read VLNTR.

She gave more than her time. Schaefer’s financial generosity has earned him a place in the UA Foundation’s Founders Society, which recognizes donors whose cumulative gifts reach $500,000 or more.

There are scholarships in Schaefer’s name at UA for women studying science, engineering, or math and at the University of Michigan for chemistry majors.

“She believed that having money was a real responsibility. Charity was just a defining part of her family, her culture and herself,” John said.

“We were raised in this house where giving back was never a question,” Kliman added.

poetic justice

When the UA Poetry Center sought a permanent home on campus, it helped build not just a repository, but a $7 million architectural marvel worthy of housing one of the world’s greatest collections of poetry. autonomous in the country.

Tyler Meier, the center’s executive director, said many people donated money and helped with the fundraising campaign, but Schaefer’s ‘amazing leadership’ is why his name ended up on the building .

Shoving money into a poetry palace just wasn’t a priority for everyone at a research-focused, land-grant institution like AU, Meier said. “But Helen was adamant that it was a need and that it would set the university apart.”

After the new center house was completed – on Helen Street, coincidentally – Schaefer remained a vital and committed supporter even later when her failing health prevented her from visiting, Meier said.

“She always wanted to know what was going on with the center,” he said. “Every nonprofit needs a champion, and we were so, so lucky to have someone like Helen as our champion.”

Apparently letting things go wasn’t Schaefer’s strong suit.

Around 1975, the serial volunteer and philanthropist decided to do something for herself, something that was eating away at her. She left her husband at home with the girls and returned to the University of Illinois, where she eventually completed her dissertation over two summers.

“It was unfinished business, and Helen didn’t like unfinished things,” John said.

She officially obtained her doctorate in 1978 with the publication of “Isotope Effects: Metal Ion Oxidations in Solution”. It would never be a bestseller, laughed her organic chemist husband, but it’s a testament to his lifelong dedication to science and his willingness to see things through.

It certainly left an impression on Kliman, who said she had tried to follow her mother’s example all her life.

“She was an incredible role model and a truly remarkable woman,” Kliman said.

Shaefer is survived by her husband, John, of Tucson; his sister Caroline Siegel and brother-in-law Ron Siegel of Lincolnshire, Illinois; sister-in-law Anita Meyer of Lindenhurst, New York; daughter Ann Schaefer-Reid and son-in-law Andy Reid of Hartford, Connecticut; and daughter Susan Schaefer Kliman and son-in-law Douglas Kliman of Fargo, North Dakota, and grandson Randall Kliman of Atlanta.

The family plans to hold a celebration of his life in late fall, possibly at the UA Poetry Center that bears his name.


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