Former Durant resident Billie Letts died Saturday in Tulsa, reportedly due to acute myeloid leukemia.
The former teacher, activist and bestselling author was 76.
Her first novel was published when she was 57. Though she had practiced her craft for many years with unpublished poetry and unproduced screenplays, it was not until she expanded a short story — about a pregnant, unwed teen who takes up residence in a Wal-Mart — into a novel that her writing found an audience in 1995.
“Where the Heart Is” reached No. 1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list and became a popular film, starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd.
It was published in 14 countries with more than 3 million copies sold worldwide. The book became a selection of Oprah’s Book Club in 1998
The Democrat reporter Regina Phillips said, when she was a senior at Caddo High and editor of The Bear Facts, school newspaper sponsor Susan White took the staff to a seminar hosted by Eastern Oklahoma State College. Letts was a speaker in one of the sessions, and she read from the newly published “Where the Heart Is.”
“I was instantly a Billie Letts fan and inspired to write my own novel one day,” Phillips said. “I loved her humor, and character development was one element that really struck a chord with me. Mrs. White gave me an autographed hardback copy of ‘Where the Heart Is’ for high-school graduation, and it’s one of my favorite gifts I’ve ever received.
“I had the opportunity to interview Billie Letts via telephone several years ago when writing an article for The KLBC Buzz. I got to talk to quite a few famous people while working as editor of the radio station’s magazine, but that was the most star-struck I ever felt.”
Letts was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame that same year. Letts wrote three subsequent novels: “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon” in 1998, “Shoot the Moon” in 2004, and “Made in the U.S.A.” in 2008.
Born May 30, 1938, in Tulsa to Bill and Virginia Gipson, Letts graduated from Union High School in Tulsa, received a bachelor’s 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.
She married Dennis Letts Nov. 30, 1958. After teaching stints in a variety of locations — including Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Champaign, Ill. — the couple settled in Durant, where they taught English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University for 30 years.
In addition to their teaching careers, they served as substitute parents for many “lost souls,” struggling artists, “disaffected” young people and displaced students. For example, they taught, hosted and befriended 125 Vietnamese refugees relocated to Durant in 1978.
An avid Democrat and activist, Letts protested on behalf of the peace movement, during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. At age 69, she was handcuffed and arrested while protesting an appearance by then-Vice President Dick Cheney in Tulsa.
Letts retired from teaching two years after the success of her first book.
Dennis Letts also had a productive second career, as an actor, after retiring from teaching. (He played a small role in the film version of “Where the Heart Is.”) They relocated to Tulsa in 2000, and he preceded her in death in February 2008.
Surviving are three sons and their wives: Dana and Deborah Letts, Wagoner; Shawn and Sharifah Letts, Singapore; and Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon, Chicago.
Tracy Letts is a playwright and screenwriter. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his play “August: Osage County,” the film version of which was released in 2013 and starred Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. The play also was his father’s Broadway debut, shortly before his death. He also wrote the screenplays for the movies made from his plays “Bug” (starring Ashley Judd) and “Killer Joe” (starring Matthew McConaughey).
Shawn Letts is a jazz musician and composer.
A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Unitarian Church, 2952 S. Peoria, Tulsa. In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations be given in her memory to the Tulsa City County Library and mailed to the Tulsa Library Trust, 400 Civic Center, Tulsa, OK 74103 or online at www.tulsalibrarytrust.org.