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Jan Soest Boleto obituary: Graphic designer, book illustrator, champion rider

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2008 - Jan Soest Boleto, whose graphic designs helped bring confirmed opera-goers and new audiences to Opera Theatre of St. Louis for more than 30 years, died Dec. 11 at her home in University City of lung and brain cancer. She was 71. She was also well known as the author of illustrated books found on coffee tables throughout the St. Louis region and the nation. Funeral services will be private.

Ms. Boleto grew up in Spanish Lake in North St. Louis County at The Farm, the family home designed and built overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers by her great grandfather on grounds that Lewis and Clark once trod. In recent years, Ms. Boleto had added her artistic touch in diligently working to restore The Farm's large garden.

Ms. Boleto, a champion equestrian in high school and her early 20s, graduated from Mary Institute in 1954. She attended Centenary College in New Jersey, Washington University in St. Louis, and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Charles MacKay, Opera Theatre's general director from 1985-2008, said he was happy to have a person of Ms. Boleto's caliber on board.

"From the earliest days of Opera Theatre," MacKay said, "Jan Boleto helped to define the company's style with bold and imaginative graphic designs. Over the past 33 years, in brochures, posters and, most of all, the iconic program book, she helped to  build the company's image as being synonymous with quality and innovation, both in St. Louis and beyond. She leaves a wonderful legacy for which all of us are deeply grateful."

Before joining Opera Theatre, Ms. Boleto did illustrations for CEMREL (Central Midwest Regional Educational Laboratory), which billed itself as the creator of aesthetic educational program materials. That's where she met her long-time co-worker and friend, Peter Shank, who joined Opera Theatre at the same time as she.

"It was an interesting relationship," Shank laughed. "We were competitive, but we appreciated each other's slightly different abilities: I'm a visual artist, a painter, and she was more oriented toward graphic design.

"I enjoyed working with Jan, but what I'm going to miss most is going to the movies and talking about movies with her," Shank said. "I probably went to the movies with Jan more than any other person."

The two also often traveled together. But truth be told, Ms. Boleto traveled as often as she could with or without companions. It was through her travels - to Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Southwest - that she was able to indulge one of her passions: collecting folk art.

As a young woman traveling in Spain, she garnered more than artifacts. That was  where she met her former husband, Elio Boleto, a matador, while tooling around Seville in her Buick convertible.

"She loved him very much," said Ms. Boleto's daughter Elizabeth (Luli) Parker.

"The two moved to New York City briefly, and later to St. Louis, but of course my father could not be a bull fighter in the U.S., so he returned to Spain when I was a little girl. They corresponded well into the '90s. I spoke with him after my mother passed and I was both surprised and touched to hear my father heartsick at the loss of my mother."

Ms. Boleto became a working single mother at a time when that was rare.

"My mother was not limited by the times," Luli Boleto said. "As a single mother who was self-employed, she was an excellent role model of how to do everything, how to take care of yourself and others around you, how to be resilient and how to bounce back. She was a strong, independent woman who had such passion and conviction for things that it was infectious."

As her long career attests, she was also incredibly imaginative and creative.

"Everything in this world was a part of her palette," Luli said. "She made people and animals from stickers on the fruit from the supermarket. She became smitten with rocks she found during a visit to Pebble Beach (California) during the '70s. We loaded up our brown Monte Carlo with our rock treasures, which she would later arrange into gentle patterns and designs."

Just before her death, Ms. Boleto had completed the most recent Opera Theatre program design and a magnificent coffee table book for one of her other loves, the Santa Fe Opera, titled "The Santa Fe Opera: An American Pioneer," by Phillip Huscher.

As her friend Peter Shank noted, "Artists never retire." Jan Boleto certainly did not.

Ms. Boleto's survivors include, in addition to her daughter Luli, her grandchildren Isabella and Nicholas Parker, her brother John K. Soest, and her niece and nephew, Teddy and Susan Soest. Another brother,  Jerrold A. Soest,  and her parents, Muriel Kuhs Soest and John S. Soest, are deceased. Her late grandfather, Edward L. Kuhs, was on the board of alderman and active in city politics.

Contributions may be made in her name to Opera Theatre of Opera Theatre of St. Louis .

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter forAfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.