In the words of father John Hilton: “She gave, and she never stopped giving.” Profound words; words that have echoed across the Aspen community since Helen Klanderud’s death on Oct. 3.
Klanderud — a groundbreaking Aspen politician, a selfless volunteer and the famed woman in black — served as Aspen’s mayor from 2001-2007. She died, at the age of 76, of complications following a stroke she suffered a day earlier. 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.
Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, presided over Klanderud’s funeral Mass, which followed a 30-minute rosary recital.
The intention of the Mass was “to surround Helen and her family with a great deal of love,” Hilton said. “Being surrounded by a community of love is essential to being human.”
From the collection of memories and stories, letters and tributes, shared since her death, it is evident that Klanderud was indeed surrounded by love — and a community that held her in high esteem.
“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,” Aspen Chamber Resort Association President and CEO Debbie Braun said.
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.
“Her presence changed this town,” said Hilton in his homily. “There were so many initiatives she was the driving force behind.”
Hilton said he could “go on and on” about Klanderud’s work and advocacy. He did not mention that as mayor, Klanderud was a driving force behind the city’s “infill” regulations that helped to spark much of the city’s recent development, one aspect of her legacy that has been both praised and derided.
Still, Klanderud’s 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.
“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,” she said in 2007.
For Klanderud, keeping Aspen special meant always giving back.
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, according to ACRA’s Braun.
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.
It’s a tale of tireless giving that goes on and on.
Hilton related a story in which former Sheriff Bob Braudis stopped Klanderud on the street and asked, “When was the last time you fired up a stove?”
“Bob, I haven’t been to the grocery store in seven years,” Hilton quoted her as saying.
In tribute, hundreds turned out for a reception in her honor at the Hotel Jerome’s ballroom on Oct. 3. There, many glasses of wine were served as those who knew Klanderud swapped stories while standing near large poster-sized photographs of her — some of which showed her wearing other colors besides her trademark black outfit.
“There was no one in Aspen who was like Helen,” a colleague said succinctly.
Below are the words of other friends and colleagues, who remember Klanderud fondly:
“She was dogged, determined, salty and smart.”
— Bill Stirling, former Aspen mayor
“I recall when Helen visited Aspen Youth Center to pick up her Spell What?! trophy after we had it engraved with her name. It was spring break and AYC was packed with kids who really wanted to have a party for her since she was our ‘spelling champion.’ Helen was a wonderful guest of honor and the kids loved her! We all sat in the gym eating cake while Helen told stories about competing in spelling bees during her school days. She also let each child challenge her with their hardest spelling word — and she got them all!”
— Keith Berglund, director, Aspen Youth Center
“I wish to pay tribute to Helen Klanderud. I first met Helen in spring of 2008 when I moved to the Western Slope as the new CEO of Colorado West Regional Mental Health, now Mind Springs Health. Helen’s passion for community mental health was evident, a passion we shared along with the goal of assuring quality mental health services be available and provided to all people in need. Her consistent advocacy for mental health and the Aspen Counseling Center is legendary and irreplaceable. She was a friend and mentor, and a true mental health hero. I personally will miss her smiling face and her generous heart. Thank you Helen for giving so much and being such a shining light for mental health needs.”
— Sharon Raggio, president and CEO, Mind Springs Health
“I remember the year AWF canceled Aspen Summer Words, in the mid-’90s. I was so dismayed that I called the office to see if I could help. Helen answered the phone, greeting me with her signature gruff, gravelly voice. What I didn’t know at the time was that the office had already closed down; the whole organization was packed into boxes; there was no staff. It was just like Helen to be the last woman standing, and just like her to help get us back on track. While Helen had a deep regard for the past and AWF’s history, she never took her eye off of our mission or the promise of a brighter future. It is what made her an extraordinary leader.”
— Julie Comins Pickrell, former executive director, Aspen Writers’ Foundation
“Helen was the most passionate person I knew. She knew how to make things happen, she was a blessing to many. Aspen feels a little lonelier now..”
— Debbie Braun, president and CEO, Aspen Chamber Resort Association
“I have immense gratitude to Helen for her help during trying times. She listened, she processed, and she advised with words of insightful wisdom. I supported Helen in her three (two successful) bids for mayor. If the overbuilding of infill began to shock us when we saw the reality of it, I never lost respect for her personal integrity and dedication to Aspen. After her term limits, she stayed in the game, attending every social and political engagement, right in there until the end. Helen Klanderud was one of a kind, a classy, grounded lady. I’m going to miss her a lot.”
— Su Lum, columnist, The Aspen Times
“She worked every day for this community for 43 years.”
— Joe DiSalvo, Pitkin County sheriff
“Lots and lots of people take care of individuals. They extend their warmth and love to individuals. Helen was one of those people who also went on to give her love and her concern to the community as a whole and worked on systems to make things better for individuals. So she did both sides. She did everything.”
— Steve Barwick, Aspen city manager
“The old aspen athletic club offered morning yoga. Then Mayor Klanderud was in the class next to me. I had been in town about five years and wanted to get involved so I asked her. ‘Check out the Planning & Zoning Commission,’ she said. I never heard of P&Z, Or land use codes or community plans. But she recognized the community value of fresh perspective. Without P&Z, and perhaps Helen’s support, I doubt I would have the privilege of serving as Aspen’s mayor today.”
— Steve Skadron, mayor of Aspen
“The old aspen athletic club
offered morning yoga. Then Mayor
Klanderud was in the class next
to me. I had been in town about
five years and wanted to get
involved so I asked her. ‘Check out
the Planning & Zoning Commission,’
she said. I never heard of P&Z, Or
land use codes or community
plans. But she recognized the
community value of fresh
perspective. Without P&Z, and
perhaps Helen’s support, I doubt
I would have the privilege of
serving as Aspen’s mayor today.”
— Steve Skadron, mayor of Aspen