Helen Klanderud — a groundbreaking Aspen politician, a selfless volunteer and the famed woman in black — died from complications of a stroke Thursday, her family announced.
Klanderud, 76, was in a doctor’s office in Aspen on Wednesday morning when she suffered the stroke, according to Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who was speaking as a longtime family friend rather than in his official capacity. Klanderud was airlifted Wednesday morning to Swedish Medical Center in Denver. She never regained consciousness and died at 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the family statement.
She died with her three children at her side. They are Kurt Klanderud, Erik Klanderud and Kaela Moontree. A fourth child, Soren, preceded her in death. Her sister, Louise Donovan, was also by her side.
“Helen will be remembered for 43 years of dedication to the community not only in public office but with many nonprofit organizations she served,” the family statement said.
A profile sketched out by grief-stricken friends and acquaintances Thursday drove home the point that Klanderud was the kind of volunteer a community needs to thrive.
“What a great lady,” said John Sarpa, a friend of Klanderud’s since the mid-1980s. “She will be remembered for her love and concern for all kinds of people.”
In 1980, Klanderud became the first woman elected to the Board of Pitkin County Commissioners. She won re-election in 1984 and launched a bid for a state Senate seat in 1986, which she barely lost.
She ran for Aspen mayor in 1999 but was defeated by Rachel Richards. Klanderud won a rematch in 2001 and served three two-year terms before she was forced out by term limits.
“She opened up so many doors for other women in the community,” said Aspen Chamber Resort Association President and CEO Debbie Braun.
Klanderud moved to Aspen in 1971 as a single mother of four, according to a profile of her in The Aspen Times Weekly in June 2007. She was a psychologist who quickly got to know a lot of people in the community through her efforts, professionally and as a volunteer, to help people get along better, according to former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, who met Helen in the early 1970s.
Stirling said Klanderud was tough. A person has to be to run in six Aspen elections, five of which she won.
“She was dogged, determined, salty and smart,” Stirling said.
They worked together on issues such as organizing the bus system and starting hydroelectric power at Ruedi Reservoir when he was Aspen mayor and she was a county commissioner.
They also butted heads when Stirling promoted a groundbreaking smoking ban in the 1980s.
“She was a smoker. She really didn’t like my no-smoking ordinance. She pushed back against it,” Stirling said.
After Klanderud completed her county commissioner terms, she took a hiatus and earned her law degree. She wasn’t out of the scene for long. She set her sights on the mayor position. After the loss to Richards in 1999, she won the rematch in Aspen’s first runoff election on June 5, 2001. She won re-election by decisive margins in 2003 and 2005.
Despite the easy elections in the last two races, Klanderud was the target of ample criticism over the years. In an effort to counter sprawl, she embraced the infill of Aspen. That meant flexibility on density and building heights in the town core. Her harshest critics called it the “Klanderudization of Aspen.”
In a profile in the Aspen Times Weekly when she exited office, Klanderud shrugged off the criticism.
“I’m not the only one making decisions,” Klanderud said in the 2007 article. “I hear a lot of criticism like Aspen isn’t what it used to be, where are the good old days, and we are losing our character.
“If you talk to visitors in this town, you hear a very different story. There are still people who find it to be a very magical place. There is something special about this place, and I don’t think you could kill it if you tried.”
Her never-wavering belief that Aspen was special and that residents played an important role in keeping it that way is a huge part of her legacy.
“She worked every day for this community for 43 years,” DiSalvo said. “She was always going somewhere and doing something.”
And she was always in black outfits. Nearly always. She flashed her sense of humor by wearing a white outfit at her 70th birthday party, attended by hundreds of friends, according to local resident Su Lum.
Klanderud was legendary for filling the part of the mayor’s role of representing the town at events, parties and functions in an official capacity.
“She loved going to everything. I think she outdid me going to events,” said Stirling, never one to shy away from the limelight as mayor.
Klanderud served on the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors as mayor, and she wanted to stay involved after she left office. She was elected to represent the professional category. She was eventually appointed to the executive committee and excelled at helping the organization deal with public-affairs issues, Braun said.
Braun credited Klanderud with having a “quiet eloquence” about her. She would listen to Braun lay out issues or challenges facing the chamber and then “help me figure out what to do,” Braun said.
It was clear from the way Braun was handling the loss of Klanderud that she is missing a great mentor. Braun said she admired Klanderud’s never-ending interest in engaging in civic pursuits, from volunteering at the Thrift Shop to helping serve St. Patrick’s Day dinners at St. Mary Catholic Church.
“I never knew how she had all this energy,” Braun said.
Details for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.