Early college leader recalled as ‘tough’ but ‘tender’


Courtesy Shawn Shiflett

Early college leader recalled as ‘tough’ but ‘tender’

By Associate Editor

Betty Shiflett, a former professor emeritus in the Creative Writing Department who was widely considered to have played a key role in the creation of what is originally known as the Writing/English Department, died of respiratory failure Feb. 6 at 87.

While known for her writing and teaching skills, her son Shawn said one of his first memories of his mother was  her working on a lesser-known pursuit: gardening.

Shawn Shiflett, himself an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department, said he used to join his mother in her flowerbed, asking her questions about the various plants. He said his mother’s work with the flowers reflected what she brought to the classroom.

“It’s how she taught,” Shawn Shiflett said. “She treated her plants like she treated her students—every one got individual care.”

Betty Shiflett has been credited with assisting in the implementation of the nationally recognized Story Workshop teaching method as well as the college’s official accreditation.

Betty Shiflett came to the college in 1967—she officially retired in 1994 but continued teaching part time—after former president Mike Alexandroff invited John Schultz to teach at the college. He began the program in 1966 and recommended Betty Shiflett to teach new courses.

Schultz and Betty Shiflett married in 1992 after being together since the early ‘70s. As the two began working together, Schultz said they got along like “gangbusters.”

“She was wonderful in the way she could reach out, listen [and] come out toward people, particularly students or others,” Schultz said. 

Randy Albers, professor emeritus in the Creative Writing Department who began working with Betty Shiflett in 1978, described her as “an artistic soul” who had an aptitude for writing as well as other art forms.

Her daughter Drew Shiflett, a working artist, said her mother believed in the arts and was supportive of her three children as they all went on to work in artistic fields.

Drew Shiflett described her as having a “strong backbone,” and “highly-principled and tenacious,” which she said were traits her mother relied on and developed after losing both parents as a teenager.

She was a survivor, but she survived very well,” Drew Shiflett said. “She excelled as a mother, wife, teacher and writer, and her writing was beautiful. She had such an original voice and masterful style.”

Her mother identified just as much with being a teacher as she did  being a writer, Drew Shiflett said, adding that following her mom’s passing, many former students attended the visitation and discussed the impact she had on them.

Donell Bonaparte, a 2010 creative writing alumnus who took Betty Shiflett’s “Advanced Fiction Writing” course, said she could make students feel as if they were the only ones in the classroom. Bonaparte added that Betty Shiflett had the valued ability to critique students without demeaning them.

“She was so tough, but she was so tender,” Bonaparte said.

Bonaparte said he learned the most from her after graduation when he took one of Schultz’s classes, discovering on the first day that Betty Shiflett was his classmate.

Bonaparte said he asked her what she was doing in the class, and she replied with, “I’m here to learn.”

“You never stop sharpening your skills,” Bonaparte said. “That was the biggest thing I got from her.”

Albers, who said Betty Shiflett was at the center of the growth of both the department and Columbia, added that she and Schultz helped set a standard of excellence for teachers and students  to follow.

“She was a huge force in this college in a crucial period of its history…. She was very much at the heart of what Columbia was for many, many years,” Albers said.