Tribute to a Grand Lady: Dolores K. Neustadt (1928-2023)

A photo of Dolores and Walter Neustadt
Dolores and Walter Neustadt in 2014 | Photo by Shevaun Williams

The World Literature Today organization and the University of Oklahoma have lost a dear friend. Dolores K. (Dottie) Neustadt passed away on Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Dallas, Texas, at the age of ninety-five. Surrounded by her family and caregivers, she died peacefully in her home. Her death marks the end of an era in that for almost fifty years she was a friend and supporter of WLT and the University of Oklahoma. The Neustadt family’s early support of OU happened during a critical period when OU was expanding to become the great institution that it is now, and Dottie’s generosity, visionary perspective, and kindness set a high benchmark for others to follow.

Dottie and her husband, Walter, were philanthropists who acted as a team—a magnificent team. They met and married in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950. Then settling and raising their family in Ardmore, Oklahoma, they prospered with the Neustadt Land and Development Company and embarked on a philanthropic journey to support the University of Oklahoma in epic ways. This undertaking was begun years earlier by Walter’s mother, Doris Westheimer Neustadt, and by the middle 2000s that tradition of generous giving included a university airport, a major renovation of the university library, an endowed professorship in engineering, an annual prize for service to students, two prestigious literary awards, a student scholarship fund, and my job as executive director of the World Literature Today organization (still my personal favorite of their many gifts!). The Neustadt family worked as a team in its support of the University of Oklahoma, and she was involved in everything.

My family’s relationship with her also went beyond my job. When I became the Neustadt Professor at OU in 1999, I quickly came to treasure her savvy grasp of the world, her open heart, and her trusting hugs. She was also a favorite “aunt” to my now-grown children, Joshua, Noah, and Risa, and was a part of their lives in so many wonderful ways.

Over the last few years, people at OU have had different degrees of contact with Dottie. Some knew her only a little, but many more knew her well from WLT’s Neustadt Lit Fests every fall. She and Walter were always there with their daughters, Kathy Neustadt, Nancy Barcelo, and Susan Schwartz, to oversee university events honoring the best writers in the world with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She especially loved putting wind in the sails of students with scholarships, which she and Walter provided generously. Also, there would be no World Literature Today organization, in the sense that we know it now, if Dottie and Walter Neustadt had not created endowments that to this day help pay many of its expenses and keep it going during rough financial times. We at WLT owe Dottie and Walter immensely for their generosity and gifts that will continue to give for many years to come.

Dottie was a grand lady and a reminder of the good that can exist in the world when a person like her has a say about what happens around her.

In a word, she was a grand lady and a reminder of the good that can exist in the world when a person like Dottie has a say about what happens around her. Her rabbi tells the story of approaching Dottie about the cooking of rice. This spiritual adviser was a good cook but was having trouble adding rice effectively to several dishes and was asking Dottie for advice. Dottie thought for a moment and then replied, “Just make noodles.” The rabbi took her advice and was well pleased. Dottie had a way of seeing through and around problems, and her friends and family valued her practical insight about everything.

We who cared about Dottie remain in awe of what she stood for. We live in desperate times, and Dottie was a warrior for decency and kindness. All who knew her were constantly aware that she won her battles hands-down because her fight to serve those she loved was unstoppable. Her impact on others, as her grandson Sam Barcelo commented at her funeral, “didn’t just trickle down through the generations.” Rather, her sense of what mattered in the world “flowed like a river, carving an indelible impression through each life that she touched.”

Dolores K. Neustadt, thank you for being the incredible person that you were. We will always love you, and so many people will miss you—and keep missing you. I hope that we can rise to the occasion to represent you well—to “just make noodles”—as we go about our lives with you in our hearts.

University of Oklahoma

For more about the Neustadt family, and to read a tribute to Walter Neustadt Jr. (1919–2010), visit the Neustadt Prize website.

Robert Con Davis-Undiano is executive director for the World Literature Today organization, overseeing all of its operations including Chinese Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today. He is Neustadt Professor in Literature and director of the Latino Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. He also provides leadership at OU’s College of Liberal Studies and the OU Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies. He was the host of the Current Conversations TV show on OETA (public television) and KGOU (radio). His most recent book is Mestizos Come Home! Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2017).