Lois Shelton, opera singer and for 20 years the force behind the University of Arizona Poetry Center, died at her Tucson home Wednesday of Alzheimer’s. She was 83.
Shelton, who retired as director of the Poetry Center in 1990, took the center from a cozy cottage with an impressive library and a local following to one that attracted poets from around the world.
After visiting the Poetry Center in 1985, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer wrote, “This is the best-run poetry program in the United States, which means the world.”
“The Poetry Center started as a quiet little place, but because of Lois it became a place that poets wanted to come to,” said Barbara Allen, who knew Shelton for close to 40 years and worked at the center while she attended the UA.
“They sought it out. That’s why the center now has such a worldwide community. She let the poets create the center’s reputation.”
“She always said she wasn’t crazy about poetry, but she loved poets,” said her husband, Richard Shelton, a poet, author and emeritus Regents Professor of English at the UA. “She treated them with great respect and the word got around.”
Because of her work, the center was able to grow in both holdings and space.
“Lois elevated the center from this quaint house to a nationally recognized center, laying the foundation for its new, permanent home,” said Gail Browne, who stepped down as head of the center in 2012. “She taught us the importance of a sense of welcome. Her generosity of spirit created lifelong friendships. We learned from her that this is an important gesture.”
Shelton was famous for her introductions of poets, giving each gracious, warm, and short introductions at readings. The content, and especially the brevity, won her praise from those she introduced.
“She did not like those long, flowery introductions,” said Richard Shelton.
Before there was poetry in Shelton’s life, there was music.
She studied opera and earned a master’s in voice from the University of Michigan, and performed here and around the country. For many years she was a soloist for Tucson’s sing-along “Messiah,” and lent her voice to theaters and choruses around town.
Her talent was impressive. “She portrays a figure of riveting malevolence and tragedy, and sings with an instrument of depth, intensity and power,” said a Tucson Citizen review of her performance in Arizona Opera’s 1978 production of “Il Trovatore.”
She often landed the secondary roles in productions at Arizona Opera. And that’s how she liked it.
“… I recognized early on that I didn’t have the drive to push myself,” she told the Star in 1990.
Shelton’s passions weren’t confined to poets and music. She applied the same eloquence and warmth to friendships.
“When my mother died, I was pregnant with my first child,” said Allen.
“I went to Lois right away. ‘Your kids can always call me Grandmother Lois,’ she told me. She took that role very seriously. She taught them to knit, she gave them books, scolded them — she did everything a grandmother would do.”
Nancy Wall was a student at the UA when she met the Sheltons in 1960.
“She had a wonderful ability to laugh at herself,” said Wall, who lived near the couple and often took morning walks with Lois and their dogs.
“She had a wonderful giggle. Even when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she would joke. She once said there is an advantage to having the disease — you can read the same novel over and over again.”
Lois Shelton was also the fingers at the keyboard as she pecked out manuscripts for the inmates at the Arizona State Prison, where her husband taught writing.
Author Ken Lamberton was one of Richard Shelton’s writing students at the prison when he met Lois Shelton — through her typewriting.
“She was responsible for at least four of my books and hundreds of manuscripts,” said Lamberton, whose book “Chasing Arizona” is dedicated to the Sheltons.
“We wrote out by longhand, and Dick took them home to Lois.”
It wasn’t long before they were returned, neatly typed and ready for the next edit.
“She was an inspiration to me,” said Lamberton.
That small gesture made a big impact on the budding writers in the program, said Allen.
“A poem scribbled on a sheet of paper is different than a poem typed on a piece of paper, with correct margins and spacing. It was as though someone was taking them seriously for the first time, and it helped them take their own work seriously. That’s why so many of them who got out of prison and published have consistently thanked her.”
The Sheltons won the Governors Arts Award in 2001 for their significant contribution to the arts in Arizona.
The Sheltons would have been married 59 years in December. “We got married on Christmas Eve in 1956,” said Richard Shelton.
He remembers how pretty she was, but that’s not what made him fall in love with her.
“It was her wit and her intelligence,” he said. “She was the most intelligent woman I ever met.”
Services, which will be held at the UA Poetry Center, have not yet been scheduled.
In addition to her husband, Lois Shelton is survived by their son, Brad, his wife, Carol, and their two granddaughters, all of Eugene, Oregon.