By Published: April 21, 2022

CU Boulder grad Patricia Sheffels establishes keynote-speaker program to address environmental issues

Patricia Sheffels vividly remembers the day she was called down to the front of “one of those steep lecture halls” during a geography final at the University of Colorado Boulder in the mid-1950s.

The freshman from California took seriously Professor Tim Kelley’s admonition that anyone caught cheating by proctors would be summoned, dismissed and flunked. Just 10 minutes into the exam, she and two male students were called.

“I thought, ‘I haven’t cheated. I haven’t looked at anyone else’s paper!’” Sheffels (Geog’58) recalls. “I could barely walk down the stairs; my knees were shaking so badly.”

Professor Kyle Powys Whyte speaking.

At the top of the page: Alumna Patricia Sheffels has created Patricia Sheffels Visiting Scholar Keynote Speaker series (Ben Hale). Above: Kyle Powys Whyte, environmental justice professor at the University of Michigan, was the inaugural speaker (Ben Hale).

“You three look pretty confident about this test,” she recalls Kelley saying. But then he smiled and told them they were getting an A in the course, based on their A work on every assignment and the mid-term exam.

And that, Sheffels says, is how she came to major in geography.

“It was a very whimsical reason,” she says with a chuckle.

More than a half-century later, Sheffels continues to show her appreciation for her CU Boulder experience and education through numerous gifts. Most recently, she established a new fund to create the Patricia Sheffels Visiting Scholar Keynote Speaker which brings interdisciplinary scholars to discuss and explore how to solve the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The first Sheffels speaker, Professor Kyle Powys Whyte, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, presented his talk “Against Crisis Science: Research Futures for Climate and Energy Justice” on March 15.

“It was a really insightful and provocative talk to go along with several other talks and meetings during his multi-day visit,” says Max Boykoff, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Studies. “I think this is a great tradition starting. It will help students have consistent contact with really top scholars from around the country and the world.”

Sheffels worked with Boykoff and Michelle Gaffga, College of Arts and Sciences director of development, to find a way to support her goal of helping to find ways to address climate change and other critical environmental problems. Her children, Eric Sheffels of Boston and Kristin Simpson of Kirkland, Washington, also contributed to the speaker program.

“Kyle Whyte was available to students, the lecture attendees and the community, and he did an admirable job. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the inaugural event and the speaker,” Patricia Sheffels says.

Sheffels grew up in Riverside, California, daughter of a dean at Riverside Junior College (now Riverside City College) and a public-school teacher. Active in dance, she took a job as summer stock at the Perry-Mansfield performing arts camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, when she was a teenager.

“I did that for two summers. I liked Colorado, and I was also learning to ski, so, totally unadvised, I applied to CU,” she recalls.

I think the keynote speaker series is a great tradition starting. It will help students have consistent contact with really top scholars from around the country and the world.”

It turned out to be the perfect choice for her. She met her former husband at CU Boulder.

Her advisor Kelley stepped in once again to give her a boost when she asked him to write a letter of recommendation for a teaching job in Great Falls, Montana, where she was moving with her husband after graduation. Unsure whether Kelley had written the letter, she tentatively reminded him of her request.

“He slapped his hand on the table and said, ‘Pat, you’re going to get a job! The superintendent of schools in Great Falls was my fraternity brother at the University of Washington, and I told him to give you a job,’” she says. “I think your college years to a very large extent shape the rest of your life, not only the people you meet, but the ideas and knowledge you gain. CU became a real family to me.”

And while Sheffels doesn’t make a big deal of it, she also used to “commute” between Boulder and Southern California with actor Robert Redford, a member of her husband’s fraternity during his year at CU.

“We shared gas expenses,” Sheffels says circumspectly, noting only that the famous actor and activist was not above the sort of shenanigans one often expects of college students.