'Grande Dame' of UA passes the baton

Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat Shirlee Bertolini performs during the halftime show of the Arizona-Oregon game on Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Az.

In 1954, Shirlee Bertolini — already a twirling champion — travelled by train from Detroit, Mich. to Tucson, Ariz. The band director at the time, Jack Lee, had plans for the Pride of Arizona and personally asked Bertolini to become the University of Arizona’s first featured twirler.

At this year’s Homecoming game, Bertolini , the “Grande Dame” of the UA, twirled her baton on the football field at 82 years old in honor of her coming retirement as UA’s Twirling Team coach.

After earning a degree in psychology, Bertolini was approached by Lee once again and was invited to create a program for twirlers at the UA. She went on to coach UA twirlers for 60 years.

Bertolini devoted her life to her twirlers, taking the time to ensure the girls were comfortable, financially stable, safe and surrounded by good people. She even donated her salary to the Shirlee Bertolini Scholarship Fund, a sum of scholarship money specifically for UA twirlers.

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“[My twirlers] are like my daughters,” Bertolini said.

As a coach, Bertolini is a strict-yet-loving perfectionist.

“You have to be strict, but you have to do it with a loving heart,” Bertolini said. “They know when they hear me say, ‘Do it again’, they know I mean for them to readily execute the way it should be done.”

Kirsten Grabo, a UA Twirling alumna and Bertolini’s successor as coach, thinks of Bertolini as her “second mom.”

When Grabo arrived in Arizona for twirling camp as a freshman from Minnesota all alone, she stayed at Bertolini’s house the first night.

Shirlee Bertolini, Twirling Team Coach, has been associated with the UA Band program for over 60 years. Her current team includes Brianne Turnbull, Alexis Mendez, Allison Forbes, Brittany Lamers, and Matilda Higman.

Bertolini was with Grabo every step of her college career. She contacted Residence Life and made sure everything was “just perfect” so Grabo felt at home.

“She’s very motherly, and she’s like that with everyone,” Grabo said. “She brings us into a family, this amazing sort of sorority-fraternity of twirlers.”

Bertolini is very protective of her twirlers and puts them before herself at every turn, according to former twirlers.

“She looks after all of her girls,” said twirler alumna Judy Sutter. “She’s like a mother hen. If they’re not all around her, she gets very nervous.”

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Sutter has known Bertolini since her first year at twirling camp in 1967, when Bertolini instructed each of her girls to bring a jar of honey to practice because “they needed the energy”. 

Back then, the marching band was nearing 200 members, but the field only had two drinking fountains. Under the desert sun, the lines for the drinking fountains were long.

“She always made sure we finished five minutes early so we could get to the drinking fountain first,” Sutter said.

The two have known each other for 50 years — Bertolini even advised Sutter on marriage prospects; after Sutter’s first marriage to a man Bertolini did not like, Bertolini said “I told you so.” One of Sutter’s most prominent memories of Bertolini is from a football game her first year as a twirler.

“Me, being 18 years old, I got turned around, and all of a sudden I am around all these big football players,” Sutter said. “And here comes Shirlee, a little more than five feet tall. ‘Get away from her! Don’t even touch her!’ she said. And these guys are backing away completely terrified.”

After 60 years of coaching the twirling team, Shirlee Bertolini, remains an amazing persona among the UA program. Her current team includes Brianne Turnbull, Alexis Mendez, Allison Forbes, Brittany Lamers, and Matilda Higman.

According to Sutter, Bertolini is one of the strongest people she has ever met and likely ever will meet.

“She walks across that field with purpose,” Grabo said.

After 64 years, everyone has their favorite stories of Bertolini, according to Grabo.

She brings apples for the band director, because she knows he likes a certain kind of apple. She brings her twirlers their favorite snacks.

“Sometimes she doesn’t focus on the big details so much as the little details that make your day brighter,” Grabo said. “She is just one of those good people. She’s like a light. When you find somebody like that, you hold onto them.”

To people like Grabo and Sutter, Bertolini is an inspiration. She taught them much and still has much to teach.

“It won’t be the same without her. She is irreplaceable,” Grabo said. “I hope I can live my life half as well as she has lived hers.”

Bertolini’s retirement was celebrated during Homecoming this year on Oct. 27.

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“She was amazing [that] night. At 82 years old, she was out there twirling on the field, and I was watching her husband watch her on the field, and it was beautiful to see,” Grabo said. “He turned 90 yesterday, so it was pretty special.”

The family she has created over the years said they hope for Bertolini to find some rest and relaxation, something she has set aside for the past 64 years. 

According to Bertolini, this retirement has been a long time coming. So many hours under the desert sun coaching her girls was finally getting too difficult.

The Pride of Arizona twirler coach Shirlee Bertolini, performs during the halftime show of the Arizona-Oregon game on Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Az.

“My energy level is not what it used to be, and I have known this for a while,” Bertolini said. “That is why I have groomed Kirsten in every way I could, because I see her as a second me.”

But Bertolini has no plans to leave her twirlers to the proverbial wolves. She plans to stay on doing administrative work and ensuring that her girls are financially stable, and she will be attending twirling competitions and game days to support them for as long as she is able.

“I hope not to drop out of the picture entirely, but I know that now I won’t have to have a schedule that requires me in the sun on the field,” Bertolini said. “[These girls] are the most fantastic team I have ever coached in my life.”

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