UArizona remembers prolific university supporter Helen S. Schaefer

Sept. 8, 2022

Beyond being the namesake of the building that houses the university's renowned Poetry Center, Helen S. Schaefer made decades of contributions to arts and cultural programs that were felt across Southern Arizona

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Helen S. Schaefer, center, at the May 5, 2005, groundbreaking ceremony for the Helen S. Schaefer Building, which houses the university's Poetry Center. Others in the photo include, from left: Gail Browne, then the executive director of the Poetry Center; university President Emeritus John P. Schaefer; then-President Peter Likins; and Charles Tatum, then the dean of the College of Humanities.

Helen S. Schaefer, a champion of arts and cultural organizations and endeavors at the university and across Southern Arizona, and the namesake of the Poetry Center's Helen S. Schaefer Building, died on Thursday. 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 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. 

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The Schaefers in 2015.

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, an oral history project from University Libraries' Special Collections.

"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.