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Widow of Wallace Stegner dies

Published May 20, 2010 7:39 am

Obituary » "Wherever he went, she followed," said son Stuart Page Stegner.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He served her breakfast in bed most mornings during their 59 years of marriage. In return, Mary Stegner guarded the gate of his study, where husband Wallace produced works that earned him the title of "The dean of Western writers."

More than 16 years after his death in a hospital after a car crash in New Mexico, Mary Stegner passed away May 15 in her sleep at a retirement center in Portola Valley, Calif. She was 99. The cause of death was simply old age, said son Stuart Page Stegner.

"One of the things my father's biographers were disappointed about was that there were no skeletons in their closet," Stegner said from his Santa Fe home. "They were a devoted couple."

Born 1911 in Dubuque, Iowa, Mary first met Wallace as an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa. She worked in the school library, while Wallace studied for his doctoral degree. The two married in 1934, then moved to Salt Lake City where Wallace taught at the University of Utah and where their son was born in 1937.

The young family then moved to Madison, Wis., and to Harvard, where Wallace Stegner taught. Stanford University, where Wallace founded the university's creative writing program, became the family's permament home for years.

Wallace, who won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Angle of Repose , dedicated his last novel, 1987's Crossing to Safety , to Mary.

In the book Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner by James R. Hepworth, Wallace described his wife as central to his life and success.

"She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls," Stegner said, "also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse's ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive."

Stuart Page Stegner said that while his mother was an accomplished violinist with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, most of her attentions were lavished on her husband and marriage.

"She quite deliberately decided that his gifts and talents were so great, the best role she would play was to be his helpmate," he said. "She wouldn't win any points in the modern women's movement for that, but that's what she did, and did deliberately."

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