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The Secret to A Long life: Poetry, Friends and Family

Dorothy Stafford is no longer 'the wife of a famous poet, William Stafford,' but her own person
by: Vern Uyetake,  Dorothy Stafford, wife of famed poet William Stafford and Lake Oswego teacher, keeps her social calendar full by visiting with friends and attending readings, lectures and plays. This month, she will read at several events held by the Friends of William Stafford to celebrate her late husband’s birthday.

In scenery I like flat country.

In life I don't like much to happen.

In personalities I like mild colorless people.

And in colors I prefer gray and brown.

My wife, a vivid girl from the mountains, says, 'Then why did you choose me?'

Mildly I lower my brown eyes - there are so many things admirable people do not understand.

- 'Passing Remark' by William Stafford

Although she was William Stafford's cherished companion, Dorothy Stafford was never the poet's muse.

During solitary writing sessions, her 'Bill' found inspiration for his gentle quotidian-style poems in man's relationship with nature and the minutia of life.

Dorothy, on the other hand, was something else entirely - his confidant, his equal, and, as he once described her, 'a vivid girl from the mountains.'

And that internal brightness has not lessened, even in times of great grief and sorrow.

Friends and poetry fans around Lake Oswego adore Dorothy's sharp wit, warm demeanor and compassionate nature. They also ask her to reveal the secret to her long, fulfilling life.

Of course, she gives them partial credit.

'She is a remarkable person, a luminous creature,' said Paulann Petersen, a close family friend. 'She is alert to what is good and wonderful in the world.'

Dorothy turned 92 on Monday and was feted by Petersen and other close friends and relatives at her annual birthday celebration. About 40 friends from across Oregon attended, including Bill Baars, director of the Lake Oswego Public Library.

'As far as I'm concerned, Dorothy is the soul of the community,' Baars said. 'She not only keeps alive what (Bill) meant to the community, she adds a whole other element with her contributions.'

Even the city has recognized those contributions, which range from involvement in civic organizations to volunteering at the library and teaching in two public schools.

Lake Oswego's street crews landscaped a small plot at the intersection of Sunningdale Road and 10th Street and named it 'Dorothy's Corner' at a dedication last April. The personalized plaque surprised Dorothy, who helped plan the public space.

'When I heard rumors about this park, I thought 'Why? There was no need for that,' Dorothy said. 'Then I realized all of my life I've asked 'Why?' so now I'll ask 'Why not?''

Dorothy crosses it every day during her stroll around the neighborhood and says it keeps walkers from getting splashed by cars passing over puddles. Flowers, grass and shrubs bloom there year-round, much like Dorothy herself.

'I never thought I could be so old and have such a rich life,' Dorothy said.

Although she had never lived alone before, Bill's sudden death in 1993 couldn't keep Dorothy from carving out a life on her own.

'My mother struggled, then was successfully her own person,' said son Kim Stafford. 'She became, as one friend said, 'No longer 'the wife of a famous poet, William Stafford,' but simply 'Dorothy Stafford.''

A major player in the local literary scene, she regularly attends author lectures, readings and her monthly book club meeting, where she drinks a glass of wine and discusses local and world events.

Plays and concerts keep her busy, as do visitors who pop in at her modest Lake Oswego home, where the Stafford family has lived for 50 years.

Then there's gardening in the backyard, spending time with her children and seven grandchildren and attending William Stafford poetry events, including several local birthday celebrations hosted by the Friends of William Stafford this month.

''Always busy' is an understatement,' Petersen said. 'She has a social calendar that would put most of ours under the rug.'

Indeed, life has been full of wonderful and memorable moments for Dorothy, who met her match in Los Prietos, Calif., in 1943.

Bill, a conscientious objector, fought fires, built roads and planted trees there during his service in World War II. Dorothy Hope Frantz, who grew up in California, had accompanied her minister father to the camp, where he preached and she performed a skit.

Bill and Dorothy, both avid readers and staunch pacifists, quickly hit it off. He asked if she would like to take a walk in the hills above the camp.

As the story goes, one of them began to recite a line from an obscure story by Willa Cather; the other completed it and the rest was history.

She returned to Los Angeles and sent him a telegram: 'After long thirst, a draught of perfect good.' The wartime censor, who suspected it might be code, blocked the message. It was her own code, and the two were married shortly after.

'So we gambled and it worked,' she said. 'We were 100 miles apart, but I knew.'

As a husband, Bill offered love, wisdom and frequent surprises. Dorothy said she was attracted to him because he didn't 'talk like other people … about the trivial.'

'He was an unusual man, and I never quite understood him,' she said.

Both teachers, the Staffords moved between various states for work and - with their four kids Barbara, Kit, Kim and Brett - eventually settled in Lake Oswego in 1957 so Bill could take a full-time position as a professor at Lewis and Clark College.

'We put our roots down,' she said. 'I knew it was home when I got here.'

Dorothy, a University of La Verne graduate, took a job teaching at Lake Grove Elementary School, then Forest Hills Elementary. She spent 20 years in the Lake Oswego School District before retiring in 1983.

'Back then you were either a nurse, teacher or secretary, and I took (to teaching),' she said. 'I don't know what I'd be now … maybe an architect.'

Home life on Sunningdale Road was anything but dull. The Stafford kids were immersed in reading, writing and the arts - experiences that influenced them in their adult careers.

'There was a lot of teaching by example,' said Kim, a writing professor at Lewis and Clark. 'We didn't have a TV until I was 10 or so. We made our own projects for entertainment.'

Then, in 1963, Bill's first major collection of poems, 'Traveling Through the Dark,' won the National Book Award.

Seven years later, he was named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Staffords moved to Washington, D.C., to experience a year of cocktail and dinner parties, writers meetings and travel.

Dorothy always stood beside her husband and never in the shadow of his fame, Petersen said. She often accompanied him to lectures and writers conferences in other states.

'There was such a wonderful mutual respect for each other and their respective places in the world,' Petersen added. 'Bill is a very famous person, but Dorothy is going to hold her own, anywhere.'

At home, Bill would rise at 4 a.m. every day to take a walk and write. He was very private with his creative process. Once, he showed Dorothy some poetry and she added a few corrections.

'He never showed me again,' she said with a smile.

His works are still held by the Stafford family and co-managed by Kim in the William Stafford Archive at Lewis and Clark.

Dorothy cherishes Bill's written word and has a number of his poems on display in their home. A bookcase in the kitchen holds his many published works.

'I like poetry so much, I don't know how I would get along with it,' Dorothy said.

She writes, too, in regular correspondence with her friends and a journal she's kept since Bill died. In it, she attaches news clippings and pictures she finds interesting or amusing.

In a letter to a reporter at the Review, she reveals: 'My love of libraries, the rich literary associations I know and friends, family, food, flowers and fun are my secrets of being so old and loving life.'