After more than 30 years safeguarding Pitkin County residents, Sundeen retires
After taking a year off to ski in Aspen, Nan Sundeen was on the train in to Manhattan in June 1988 on her way to a job interview at a large pharmaceutical company when she was struck by an epiphany.
“It was urban, it was unpleasant, no one looked at each other,” she said Monday on her last day of work as director of human services in Pitkin County. “And I said, ‘I’m never moving back to the East Coast.’ It was just like, this corporate world was not for me.”
So she high-tailed it back to Aspen, got a job as the first human resources director at the Hotel Jerome and three years after that was hired to lead Pitkin County’s nascent Health and Human Services Department, where she’s been ever since. On Monday, more than 30 years later, Sundeen called it a career and retired.
“I just want to become a human being, not a human doing,” she said in an interview before her retirement party at the Health and Human Services Building across from Aspen Valley Hospital. “I think my nervous system needs to slow down a little bit and see what comes up.”
Sundeen, 64, said she’s generally not a person who looks backward, though she’s been reflecting lately on her three decades looking out for the health and welfare of Pitkin County’s residents. She said she’s also heard from friends and colleagues wishing her well and complimenting her on a career well-spent.
“I feel really proud,” she said. “I feel really settled and confident with my decision (to retire), and I feel loved and appreciated. It’s really humbling and gratifying. I really made a difference here. It feels good.”
Longtime Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper agreed, and credited Sundeen with improving many people’s lives by providing equitable access to food, shelter and health care that didn’t exist before she started.
“She has made a difference in so many, many lives here in Pitkin County,” Clapper said. “She helped the gamut who were in need and ensured that all demographics in our community are treated fairly. I’m gonna miss her a lot for many reasons — as a friend, a co-worker and someone I’ve always looked up to.”
Sundeen grew up in Connecticut, attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, then earned a master’s degree in social work from Boston College. But after all that studying, she needed a break and came out west.
“As soon as I drove in to Aspen in (September) 1987, I was just in love,” she said. “I love to ski. I loved the people and how friendly everything was. I felt like I fit in.”
When she first applied to be health and human services director in 1991, however, she didn’t even get an interview. But the county couldn’t settle on a suitable candidate at the time to replace Michael Schultz — a beloved figure and the man for whom the current county HHS Building is named — so she reapplied and got the job.
At the time, the HHS director was a part-time position, which was perfect because Sundeen was pregnant with her daughter when she started. One of her first main tasks from the county manager at the time was to find a stable source of funding for several nonprofit organizations that provided a social safety net for residents.
So she started a United Way-like program called Neighbor to Neighbor, which required her to give presentations to restaurants, bars and other local businesses and organizations, asking employees to donate $1 or $2 per week to support that safety net. The effort ended up raising between $300,000 and $500,000 a year, Sundeen said.
Then came the recession after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which prompted an $800,000 county deficit and Sundeen to go out on her own time and advocate for a voter-supported property tax that eventually passed and became the ground-breaking Healthy Community Fund. Today, that fund contributes more than $3 million a year to local nonprofits that contribute to the overall health of county residents.
“It was a huge deal,” she said. “At the time, only Boulder and Pitkin (counties) had a property tax for community services. Today, we have a robust social safety net that you do not find in (other) rural resort small communities.”
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock credited Sundeen with creating partnerships and building systems in the county that have led to dramatically improved access to affordable health care, dental care and mental health and substance abuse treatment that has affected the lives of thousands of residents. She has also helped move homeless people into stable living situations and stepped up to pull together cash and resources for Pitkin County residents who lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“Nan’s leaving a legacy, I think, that’s going to continue to grow and thrive even in her retirement,” Peacock said. “She’s been a very strong voice for those in need.”
Sundeen said she’s happy to leave a strong staff of 26 people she is confident will continue to look out for the needs of Pitkin County’s most vulnerable populations.
But she’s also happy to take a well-earned break.
She and her husband, Dick — they have been married for more than 30 years — have no immediate plans to leave the Roaring Fork Valley and their home in Carbondale. They recently purchased a travel trailer and want to hit the road this spring and visit national parks in Utah and California.
“I love waking up outside and having a cup of coffee and just being a part of the landscape,” Sundeen said. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to — not being the head of anything.”