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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Carol B. Spellman (1951-2017)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

By Anne Pryor (Madison, Wisconsin) — 

The folklore community lost a vibrant light with the passing of Carol Beth Spellman on January 26, 2017. Carol was a Western folklorist: born in California in 1951; educated at UC-Berkeley, Portland State University, and University of Oregon; folklife educator at the Oregon Folklife Program; and staff with Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Carol exuded vitality. Her joie de vivre was a defining characteristic. She was infinitely interested in everyone she met, with short encounters typically transforming into sincere friendships. I was one of those people who spent few actual hours with her but nevertheless felt an abiding kinship.

Part of that kinship was our shared dedication to folklife education. Carol had a master’s degree in education and taught in elementary schools in the greater Portland area on and off for over 20 years as childrearing and health allowed. Then she discovered folklore. Despite the challenges of commuting between Portland and Eugene for two years with two children at home, Carol earned a second master’s degree from the University of Oregon’s Folklore Program in 2002. You can see her culminating documentary, “For the Love of the Tune: Irish Women and Traditional Music,” at

Carol’s first AFS meeting was in 2003 in Albuquerque and she embraced the opportunity with typical passion. She chaired an ambitious multi-disciplinary forum, “Youth Exploring and Documenting Culture,” featuring four programs that had engaged youth with narrative, primary sources, and fieldwork methodologies. One of those programs was her own “Portraits of Oregon: Youth Exploring Culture and Community,” an impressive video documentation project. In addition to wrangling the session overall – one that required more than the ordinary amount of coordination and technological acumen – Carol also shepherded three of the young men who had been part of the project and were attending AFS as presenters. During the session, Carol’s obvious and implied skills shone: she was organized, had teaching talent and filmmaking flair, displayed a generous nurturing spirit to youth, was fearless, and above all, seemed to be having a lot of fun. I was an immediate fan.

 Carol developed “Portraits of Oregon” while working as the Folklife Education Coordinator at the Oregon Folklife Program (Oregon Historical Society), garnering awards from the OSU Extension Service in 2003 and the AFS Folklore and Education Section in 2004. Here was the perfect job in which she could combine her love of teaching, folklore, film, and storytelling. During her tenure at OFP, Carol developed additional projects in which youth documented local culture through video production, developed a folk artist teaching roster, and managed the apprenticeship program. Those were the good years. She also had the unhappy task of closing down the program in 2008-09 when it lost its institutional support; the positive outcome was that she deposited OFP’s collection at the U of O Folklore Program’s Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Carol continued work in the field of folklore through 2010 at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, presenting performers at area schools, serving as host, and producing “guerrilla videos” with Anders Lund. Her playful nature is especially evident in the delightful “Handlebars and Horseshoes,”

Carol’s irrepressible spirit defied her precarious health. Ill with Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since 1997, her initial recovery went against medical predictions. Having experienced life’s fragility, she embraced all she did with inspiring and inclusive passion, whether on the dance floor, at an Irish music session, riding her mustang Tesoro, or being a folklorist. Her disease returned in a new form in 2010 and complications from its treatment eventually caused her death.

Her immediate family – husband Kevin, son Matt, and daughter Katie – have honored Carol’s connection to her folklore family by establishing a fund at the U of O to support students in their study of public folklore, especially related to the use of video or film. Contributions can be made to the Carol B. Spellman Public Folklore Fund, Folklore Program, 1287 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.


Nancy Nusz says...
Posted Thursday, September 14, 2017
This piece captures so much of what Carol was to those of us who knew her, thanks Anne for writing it. I worked with Carol at the Oregon Folklife Program until I left in 2007 and we remained in contact after that about issues of folklife in Oregon and personal ones. I can honestly say that she was one of the hardest working, most dedicated folklorists and educators I've ever known. She was always ready to help others colleagues, students, and folk artists. Many of her projects won awards and recognitions for their excellence and innovations. Carol was a joy to work with, an indefatigable folklorist, a model mother, a reliable friend to everyone she met, a woman with a keen sense of humor and fun…wonderful human being. She taught me so much during the years we worked together, for which I will forever be grateful.

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