“Shelley made everyday matter,” Shelley Kerr’s husband, Dave Cummings said. “No matter how hard the cancer got or how much pain she was in, Shelley really lived her life and she made each day count. Up until the very end, she fought with an armor made of smiles.”
Shelley Kerr was many things – a lifelong artist, a student, a teacher, a ballroom dancer, a wife, and a friend. Most notably, she was a giver. She had many passions and gave them her all. Here at Colorado State University, and in particular, the Flint Animal Cancer Center, we are thankful for her unyielding support.
Shelley was also a cancer warrior. She fought a courageous battle against a terminal bladder cancer diagnosis every single day for eight years. She not only became a champion for cutting-edge treatments and cancer research, but she also became a beacon for fighting with the grace and strength that only a warrior can master.
Even on the days that included rigorous cancer treatments, Shelley asked herself – Was it a good day? Was it an important day? She measured the quality of each day by looking at four self-determined pillars: giving, learning, loving, and creating. If she could reflect on the day and say she had loved well or created something exquisite, it was indeed a good day.
Nearly every day of Shelley’s life was good because she made it so. She made a concerted effort to make the world a better place by acting on each pillar of her belief system. “Shelley was nothing if not enthusiastic,” Dave said. “When she decided on these four guiding principles, she went after them with enthusiasm. Every day was good because she knew the measure of a good day and she worked for it.”
Shelley grew up in Northern Colorado and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. She started out as a French horn major and then switched to molecular biology. She went on to earn a master’s in communications from Colorado State University. Shelley’s zeal for learning allowed her to study a wide array of subjects and work in a variety of fields after college.
At a high school reunion, Shelley and Dave reconnected after not having seen each other since their graduation ceremony. “I had moved away from Northern Colorado years before and I had not planned to come back for the reunion. I ended up coming on a whim; meeting her was meant to be,” Dave recounted.
The pair went on to form a decade-long friendship where they caught up on life post-high school and cultivated a special bond. Friendship turned to love and the pair married in December 2010. “She was the love of my life,” Dave said with tears brimming in his eyes. “She was the person I thought I’d get to grow old with.”
Dave and Shelley loved to play music together, dance, and travel. Shelley and Dave also married their talents, working for a nonprofit, Partners in Food Solutions. This organization strives to cultivate a sustainable food industry in Africa. Dave served as the volunteer Operations Director and Shelley as the Communications Director, putting her master’s degree to good use.
When Shelley and Dave settled in Northern Colorado, they formed a musical trio with Mark Goldrich known as Kerrfew. The group played a long set of songs and performed anywhere they were invited. Shelley played a signature red accordion, adding a fun element to many well-known songs.
Shelley’s talent was as wide as her passion was deep. She was one of those people who could master anything she tried. Along with dancing and music, she worked as a REALTOR®, taught ballroom dancing, and modeled. She was also a talented artist.
“Shelley had always loved art, even as a child. One day, a developer called for bronze statues for a new commercial development in Fort Collins. Shelley decided to submit a proposal without ever even making a monument-size sculpture,” Dave said with a warm laugh. “Of course, she was awarded the job. And she did it. She made a larger-than-life Joseph Antoine Janis, an early Fort Collins settler, sculpture outside the bank.”
She went on to become a renowned bronze sculptor, winning many awards and selling or donating sculptures around the country. Much of her work was inspired by her battle with cancer and many pieces include warrior-like elements that she earned through her fight.
Breakthrough is a trojan-horse statue that was inspired by her own treatment. Her doctor recommended a new treatment, enfortumab vedotin, that acts as a literal trojan horse against bladder cancer. This trojan horse treatment attaches to cancer cells, sneaks inside, and kills the cell from the inside out. Her sculpture represents the hope she felt with this new treatment modality.
Her Nebra Sky Swords sculpture features the swords she imagined during treatment that could stab and kill the cancer cells in her body. Shelley’s sculpture, To Live, is one of her most well-known. Shelley described it by saying, “It is a celebration of the positive news and scientific breakthroughs that are rapidly changing the landscape of fighting cancer.” Editions of this sculpture are displayed at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus honoring her care providers and the Kansas University Medical Center honoring the Leo and Ann Albert Institute which promotes collaboration in bladder cancer research.
Shelley’s final piece – Enthoes – embodies the four pillars that Shelley and Dave came to live by. Each side of the pillar is emblazoned with the Greek word for loving, creativity, giving, and learning and the top of the sculpture presents Entheos, the Greek word for the god within.
A ONE CURE VOICE
Shelley came to be a friend of the Flint Animal Cancer Center by a chance encounter. Joe Vasos, the FACC’s long-time videographer, attended Shakespeare in the Park one summer night. Shelley and Joe had many mutual friends, and they happened to be sitting near each other.
“I was talking about this production I was working on for the One Cure program at the Animal Cancer Center,” Joe explained. “She overheard me say that I needed to find someone to interview who was on immunotherapy.”
Shelley was always one to share her story and praise the life cancer research had given her. “Shelley piped up that she happened to be currently on an immunotherapy treatment and volunteered to help me,” Joe said. “Shelley and I became fast friends. She was very eloquent and so willing to share her story to help us out.”
“She stole the show,” Joe said with a big smile. “She was everything we needed and more. That PBS documentary – The Answer To Cancer May Be Walking Beside Us – was watched countless times. She helped us bring the promise of comparative oncology to the masses. There’s no way it would have been such a success without her ability to speak about cancer and be heard.”
Shelley earned her position as a One Cure ambassador. She spoke at events and fundraisers, and she exemplified just how important front-line cancer treatments are. “The only way Shelley was able to live for so long after her diagnosis was by living on the cutting edge of cancer treatments. She rode that wave for eight years and we’re forever grateful for the years she was able to live because of cancer research,” Dave said.
“Shelley understood that time is not always your friend,” Dr. Christine Hardy said. “She lived life to the fullest and despite her shortened time, she made the most of every single day. She recognized the need to speed up discoveries and that’s exactly what she’s helped us do.”
Through her work with One Cure, Shelley became deeply connected to the entire FACC team. She appreciated our novel approach to fighting cancer and accelerating results, but she also came to love and trust the people. Lynda Reed – the first official Flint Animal Cancer Center employee – and Shelley became exceptionally close.
“I met Shelley when she came in for a tour,” Lynda said. “I was so taken by her. We just hit it off. There was a spark in her and I was attracted to her from the very beginning.” Shelley and Lynda came to affectionately call themselves sisters in heart.
“In true Shelley fashion, when Shelley decided to create an endowment at the FACC, she named it after Lynda Reed. She could have named it after herself, but instead, she chose to honor someone else. That’s really something,” Dr. Hardy said. “In many ways, Shelley and Dave’s gift gave our One Cure program the foundational support it needed. They helped set us up to work toward sustainable clinical trials so that we can speed up discovery.”
“It was the surprise of my life when they named the endowment after me. I asked them what the hell did you name it after little ‘ole me for,” Lynda said with a warm, sad laugh.
“Why Shelley and Dave named the endowment after me, I’ll never know. I loved working at the animal cancer center because I felt like I was working among giants making a difference in cancer research. When Shelley put the endowment in my name, I felt like I was one of the giants, too. That’s what Shelley did for everyone – she made them feel giant,” Lynda said.
“That was the best investment decision we ever made,” Dave said. “The endowment has grown tremendously and we are incredibly happy to know the money is working to accelerate cancer research for humans and pets.”
AN ARDENT ART SUPPORTER
To know Shelley was to understand that she gave wholly to anything she believed in, most especially art. Shelley worked tirelessly to expand access to art by supporting the local art community.
“I met Shelley when she was my student,” said Ann Gill, retired CSU College of Liberal Arts Dean. “She was the best student, so attentive, creative, and such a good writer, but I really became friends with her on a personal level and I am so thankful for that.”
“When I think of Shelley, the word that comes to mind is glow. We frequently had lunch together and as I watched her walk into the restaurant, she just had this glow about her. Everyone noticed her,” Ann recounted.
“When she talked about her art she would just glow. Her whole face lit up as she told me what she’d learned and how she planned to turn her experiences and the research she had done into something beautiful. I could listen to her for hours,” Ann added. “I have her Nebra Sky Swords sculpture hanging in my house. I look at it every single day and think of her. I think of how she just glowed when she described how she imagined the swords killing her cancer.”
“She never felt sorry for herself and she never let her cancer dull her glow. She was a gift to my life – she just made things glow,” Ann said.
In honor of her friend and teacher, Ann Gill, Dave and Shelley supported the Ann Gill Visiting Lecturer and Artist Endowment at the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University. This fund is designed to allow the college to bring exciting and inventive professionals and artists to Colorado State University to give guest lectures, presentations, readings, performances, and exhibitions. The Ann Gill Visiting Lecturer and Artist Fund will elevate the CSU College of Liberal Arts to be a nationally recognized laboratory for innovative guests to share their knowledge, experiences, and art.
WINNING THE BATTLE
Shelley was a cancer survivor. Her warrior-like attitude and joy for life were an inspiration for cancer patients, doctors, and researchers all the same. She never wasted a day and she lived more in her short years than some live in a full life.
Shelley would never say that she lost the battle with cancer. Instead, she won every single time she got to live to see another good day. Shelley passed away on Friday, October 28, 2022. Shelley is survived by her husband, Dave, and their dog, Rango.
All future proceeds from Shelley’s art will be put into the Shelley Kerr Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado to support groundbreaking cancer research.
“When I think of Shelley, I think of someone that was larger than life. Everything she did, she embraced with gusto and love and joy,” said Dr. Hardy. “She laughed through the hardest of times and committed to live her life, cancer or not. And darn if she didn’t.”
“Shelley’s legacy lives on in everyone that knew her,” said Dave. “And even those who didn’t. Her art, her storytelling, and the research she funds are changing the face of cancer.”
We will forever miss Shelley’s big smile and even bigger heart here at Colorado State University. However, Shelley’s commitment to her ethos – living, loving, learning, and giving – measured a good life… an exceptional life.