“Viva Rose!” San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye exclaimed those words when introducing Rosemary Catacalos at a 2013 event honoring Catacalos’ selection as poet laureate of Texas.

After learning of Catacalos’ death at age 78 from cancer on Friday, Nye reflected on their 51 years of friendship.

“At every age, she was a total original,” Nye said. “Her poems contain the whole world, they’re an archive of time, of history.”

The two prominent poets met while Nye was a student at Trinity University interested in poetry and already sending out work in hopes of being published.

Nye said Catacalos was reticent about seeking publication, sending out work only when invited and when the occasion served goals beyond receiving attention. She produced three volumes during her lifetime, collections of poems that reverberate with social justice causes and concern for the downtrodden and those poorly served by society.

An example is “David Talamántez on the Last Day of Second Grade,” which tells of a student recorrecting pages of assignments and tests corrected and scored low by his teachers, who criticized his poor spelling, bad penmanship and lack of attention to following rules.

“On every single page David Talamántez has crossed out the teacher’s red numbers and written in giant letters, blue ink, Yes! David, yes!,” Catacalos wrote of the student’s rebellious act of self-affirmation.

Nye selected that poem when she was invited in 1995 to guest edit a poetry section for the Texas Observer. Catacalos was a native of San Antonio’s East Side, but at the time had relocated to San Francisco for a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship and to direct the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University for a decade before returning to her home city.

Nan Cuba, Gemini Ink’s founding executive director, said Catacalos cared deeply about education, and when hired in 2003 to take over for Cuba as executive director of the literary center, worked to extend the Writers in Communities program.

“She developed that program in remarkable ways,” Cuba said, extending beyond sending writers to school to include community centers throughout the city and working with incarcerated youth.

Over her decade-long tenure leading the nonprofit, Cuba said, “[Catacalos] used the organization to make a difference in the city. … She proved what literature can accomplish.”

Alexandra van de Kamp, Gemini Ink’s current executive director, also praised Catacalos’ organizational legacy with what is now called the Partner Classes program. “She did a wonderful job of really making sure our mission was getting to as diverse an audience as possible across the city.”

Van de Kamp said she worked with Catacalos in 2018 for a Tricentennial panel discussion on the Chicano Movimiento. “Rosemary was brilliant,” Van de Kamp said.

Catacalos received many awards, honors and distinctions, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, publication in The Best American Poetry, and the Texas Institute of Letters Poetry Prize. Her poem “Mr. Chairman Takes His Leave” was published by the Academy of American Poets online Poem-a-Day in April.

Fans of Catacalos’ poetry will have a new volume to look forward to, once her colleague Jim LaVilla-Havelin completes the process of editing the full manuscript she left behind and finds a publisher.

LaVilla-Havelin said she asked that the new volume, which would be only the fourth collection of her poetry to be published, be titled Sing the ¡!, in defense of the particularities of Spanish language and her own mixed heritage, part Greek and part Mexican.

“She was feisty to the end,” he said. “And that’s something else we remember about her. Her poems are not gentle, they’re not soft, and they’re not without confrontation. They are prickly.” However, he said, “they’re gorgeous in terms of pure language.”

Catacalos brought similar ferocity to her fight against lung cancer, surviving seven years until the disease progressed to her brain. She was closely attended to during her final days by Betsy Schultz, whom friend Bett Butler described as Catacalos’ dearest friend.

Schultz read all messages posted to the Caring Bridge page managed by Butler as a way for friends and colleagues to communicate with Catacalos while in hospice. The page is currently receiving tributes. On June 19, Butler wrote, “Your integrity, intelligence, and sense of humor have sustained us all.”

Butler said arrangements for a memorial service are underway.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...