Delores Pander, 1938-2010

Henk Pander, portrait of Delores Rooney, December 2009. 54" x 64", oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

Graceful, intelligent and hard-working, Delores Pander generally stayed behind the scenes of Portland’s arts world, where she had a habit of making sure the scenes were working precisely the way they ought to. Born on Aug. 16, 1938, she died of cancer on Thursday, June 24, 2010. For many years she was the wife and partner of the Dutch-born Portland painter Henk Pander, one of our best and most important artists, whose work has fused the long tradition of Dutch art with the frontier edge of the Pacific Northwest and a keen outsider’s feeling for the American psyche. Art Scatter senior correspondent Martha Ullman West, a longtime friend of Delores, offers this personal tribute.


By Martha Ullman West

Delores Pander died early Thursday morning after a long, hard, painful battle with cancer. Her accomplishments were many, her passion for knowledge profound, the reach of her love and loyalty and friendship broad and deep.

Henk Pander’s extraordinary portrait above of his beautiful wife, made in December of last year, says it all: she is surrounded by images representing the things that were most important to her — a ceramic made by her granddaughter Mary-Alice; the house she shared with Henk and Mary-Alice and several dogs for a number of years; a pile of books; and in her hand a book by Ursula Le Guin, another artist whom she helped with the practical details of work. Her favorite color was the deep, dark red that saturates the painting, and the lighter red shoes she’s wearing are emblematic of her love of pretty clothes.

Delores was years away from becoming an artist’s wife when I first met her in the fall of 1973 at David Nero and Associates, where I was an incompetent technical writer and she was the highly competent secretary for an educational research project to study Follow Through, a shortlived offshoot of Head Start. With her dark hair and sparkling eyes, her clear intelligence, her love of laughter, and the incredible speed, organization and efficiency with which she ran the office and kept our motley crew in line, she reminded me at once of my mother, who put all those attributes, including the dark-haired beauty, to work in the caring and feeding of my artist father.

Delores’s refusal to put up with any guff from those of us who were above her in the pecking order also reminded me of my mother. I’m ashamed to say I was a bit uppity with her at some point, and for Christmas she gave me an engagement calendar inscribed “to the writer from the typer-writer.”

Delores had come to Portland fairly recently from Los Angeles with her second husband, and her then teenaged daughter Debbi, with whom she had a stern, daily phone call about homework and chores each afternoon when Debbi came home from school. The research project was short-lived (and in fact I left before it was over) but Delores and I kept in touch. She took a job managing the Portland Dance Theater and stayed through the company’s transition to Cirque, before I started writing about dancing. According to dancer and choreographer Gregg Bielemeier, she was just as good at keeping a bunch of dance artists in line as she was with educational researchers, who,  believe me, also had their quirks.

It was through Portland Dance Theater that she met Henk, who was collaborating with them, designing a set for a piece called Echo, which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and performed at Keller Auditorium, then called Civic Auditorium. That was, I’d venture to say, his lucky day. She certainly thought it was hers.

I spoke with her a couple of weeks ago on the phone and said something about how hard it is to be an artist’s wife (someone I vowed at age 10, loudly, to both my parents that I would never be).

“Martha,” she said in a firm voice, “I’ve had a wonderful life, more wonderful than I ever dreamed.”

At about the same time Delores was working for Portland Dance Theatre, Ursula Le Guin, who was getting a lot of fan mail for her novels and feeling overwhelmed by the non-writing aspects of being a writer, told me she needed some very part-time secretarial help. I thought immediately of Delores, who was to work with Ursula — with rather than for is the operative word for that independent, charmingly self-assertive spirit — until she became ill. And for the past twenty years, Delores performed the same function with Jean Auel.

Even with a nickel to start with, working for non-profits like Cirque won’t get you a cup of coffee. So Delores found herself a “real” job with an early cable company and put her organizational talents to work getting it established. As Henk remembered it, an argument with her boss about how to do something led Delores to quit, or possibly get herself fired, which her boss regretted so much he gave her a farewell party.

He knew U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, then a Multnomah County commissioner, and Delores went to work for him, running his office, putting on events, dealing with constitutents. When he was elected city commissioner she went along.

Through all these job shifts and part-time assistantships, Delores devoted herself to Henk’s work, urging him to apply for grants, doing the practical work of the applications for him, keeping track of his work, maintaining a mailing list, freeing him to paint, and when she had time, which wasn’t often, posing for him.

Mary-Alice, her granddaughter, came to live with them when she was quite young, and Delores once again was keeping track of homework. Life was full and busy and sometimes very hard, and then she got sick.

“She was heroic and graceful,” Henk said to me on the phone the day she died. “She never complained; she never flinched.”

She wouldn’t, of course. Delores was made of stern stuff, but laughter and a zest for life itself were so much a part of her it’s hard to believe, or accept, that she’s gone.

She will be buried in Cottage Grove, Oregon, in her family plot. There will be a memorial celebration of her life later in the summer in Portland. And there is much to celebrate.


ILLUSTRATION: Henk Pander, portrait of Delores Pander, December 2009. 54″ x 64″, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.