Oklahoma author, teacher and activist Billie Letts died Saturday in Tulsa of acute myeloid leukemia, according to her obituary from Mallett Funeral Home in Wagoner.
She was 76.
Her first novel, 1995′s “Where the Heart Is,” published when she was 57, reached No. 1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. It was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in December 1998, and in 2000, a popular film adaptation, starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd, was released in theaters.
Born on May 30, 1938, in Tulsa, to Bill and Virginia Gipson, Letts graduated from Union High School in Tulsa, received a Bachelor of Science Degree in English and Education from Southeast Missouri State University, and earned a Master’s Degree in Behavioral Studies from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Her teaching career spanned 30 years, ranging from elementary school to the university level.
An avid Democrat and activist who protested on behalf of the peace movement, both during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, Letts, at age 69, was handcuffed and arrested while protesting an appearance by then-Vice President Dick Cheney in Tulsa.
Though she practiced her craft for many years with unpublished poetry and unproduced screenplays, it was not until she expanded a short story — about a pregnant unwed teenager who takes up residence in a Wal-Mart — into the novel “Where the Heart Is” that her writing found an audience. It was published in 14 countries with more than 3 million copies sold worldwide. Letts was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame that same year.
Letts wrote three subsequent novels “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon” (my personal favorite of her books) in 1998, “Shoot the Moon” in 2004, and “Made in the U.S.A.” in 2008.
She married Dennis Letts on November 30, 1958. After teaching stints in several locations, including Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Champaign, Ill., the Lettses settled in Durant, where they taught English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University for 30 years. They even taught — and hosted and befriended — a hundred and twenty-five Vietnamese refugees relocated to Durant in 1978.
Letts retired from teaching two years after the success of her first book. Her husband also had a productive second career, as an actor, after retiring from teaching. (He plays a small role in the film version of “Where the Heart Is.”) They relocated to Tulsa in 2000. Her husband preceded her in death in 2008.
The are survived three sons and their wives: Dana and Deborah Letts, Wagoner, OK; Shawn and Sharifah Letts, Singapore; and Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon, Chicago. Tracy Letts is the award-winning playwright, actor and screenwriter who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “August: Osage County” and a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
A Memorial Service is being planned, according to the funeral home.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made “In Memory of Billie Letts” online at www.tulsalibrarytrust.org, or checks can be made out to:
Tulsa Library Trust
400 Civic Center
Tulsa, OK 74103