Is she ‘systematically destroying the old Aspen’ or ‘understanding, compassionate and engaged’?
Helen Klanderud’s bumper sticker reads “Relax … it’s Aspen.”That might have been a difficult mantra to live by for a woman who has reigned over the city for the past six years and, as a result, has served as the scapegoat for many of Aspen’s woes. But for Klanderud, who last week relinquished her seat as mayor, it’s a simple statement she’s followed since she moved here as a single mother of four in 1971.Now that she has passed the gavel to newly elected Mayor Mick Ireland, she can breathe a bit easier and enjoy being an average citizen again in a community she has worked so hard to protect.”I’m taking the summer off,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunities even though I don’t know what those might be yet.”
For the past two weeks, it’s been a love fest of sorts for Klanderud, who has been honored and recognized by hundreds of people for her dedication and service to Aspen.The words spoken by her colleagues during her last City Council meeting brought Klanderud to tears. It was an emotional farewell for a woman who has been viewed as stern and steadfast in her politics and positions.”I used the words ‘grace, dignity, intelligence, spirit and integrity’ to describe her, and I saw her face tremble, and then I realized I had her,” said City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss, who has often disagreed with Klanderud.
Klanderud’s three terms as mayor were certainly no love fest; she has been criticized roundly as a pro-development politician by a few very vocal citizens.”My gut feeling is that she has systematically attempted to destroy the old Aspen, and I can’t figure out why,” said resident Les Holst.Some critics even use the term “Klanderudization of Aspen” to describe the ongoing rush of redevelopment in town.”That’s bullshit,” DeVilbiss said. “It’s completely unfair.”Klanderud shrugs off the label, saying she represents only one vote on a five-person City Council.”I’m not the only one making decisions,” Klanderud said. “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.”Despite the criticism, it appears that Klanderud has been popular with the public. She’s always been a social butterfly, spending plenty of time in local watering holes, chatting up her constituents, and attending parties and events.”I think Helen’s been a great mayor, a great ambassador for Aspen,” said City Councilman Jack Johnson.And to Klanderud, it’s all been in an effort to show support to community organizations.”I enjoy it – being out and about you get good feedback,” Klanderud said. “It really keeps you in touch with the community.”The fact that Klanderud travels in many different circles was evident at her 70th birthday bash, which she threw for herself last weekend at the Aspen Meadows. Hundreds of friends, supporters and family members came to celebrate. Former mayors, city staff, colleagues, old friends and a cross section of community members were there.Klanderud’s son Erik spoke at the party about his mother’s role as a Pitkin County commissioner when he was a kid in the ’80s. She was high-profile then, making the news frequently.
“As a kid, I thought that was cool to see her name in the paper,” Erik said. “Then as you get older, you recognize her work raising four kids and devoting time to the community.”But the woman who is known for wearing black is not afraid to show her darker side when she flashes “the look.””I remember it as a kid,” Erik said. “It used to terrify us.”Klanderud’s colleagues also know the look. She’ll lay her eyes on someone like a laser when necessary. Klanderud calls it a maternal instinct from when her children became unruly. Others call it something else.”It’s like Genghis Khan on a cold morning, and there’s a hole in the tent, and you made it,” Councilman Johnson joked.Klanderud can be intimidating, but most agree she does it with finesse and style.”I think Helen can be very firm, and there were times when it was necessary and harsh,” said Rachel Richards, who ran against Klanderud in 1999 and won the mayor seat. Richards lost to Klanderud in 2001 but eventually won a City Council seat and served with her for four years. “But she is very understanding, compassionate, empathetic and engaged.”Klanderud tried her best to be understanding and compassionate with political gadfly Toni Kronberg, who has maintained a constant presence at City Council meetings over the years. It was evident at most meetings that Klanderud had no problem cutting Kronberg off when her time was up.
“She is frustrating; it’s not that I don’t like her,” Klanderud said.During Klanderud’s last meeting, Kronberg presented the mayor with a peace offering: pink angel wings and makeshift halo, which Klanderud wore for about 30 seconds.Beyond her political endeavors, Klanderud also has been a dedicated mother and a community member who had fun along the way. She was one of the first players of the all-woman Mother Puckers hockey team nearly 30 years ago. A group of mothers formed the team as a way to support their young sons playing junior hockey. The mothers played against the boys routinely.”I was won of those unfortunate hockey players, and when she came out for the first time in white figure skates with bells on them and scored a goal on me, I quickly changed to forward,” joked Klanderud’s oldest son, Kurt.Kurt also remembers his mother’s partying days when he would go out on the town and see Klanderud cutting it up on the dance floor.”I’d go into Andre’s and Mom was dancing – it was bad,” he laughed. Those nighttime sightings continued when Klanderud went to law school at the University of Nebraska, which Kurt and Erik attended during the same time.Klanderud, who started out as a clinical social worker, decided to get her law degree when she was in her 50s. At the time, she had no commitments in Aspen. The kids were out of the house and her mother was in a nursing home in Lincoln, Neb.”I thought what can I do in Nebraska? So I went to law school,” she said.Klanderud’s energy continues two decades later. She wakes up at 5 a.m. and hits the gym at 6:30 a.m. She spent most of her time as mayor in her City Hall office, answering phone calls and e-mails from the public and being on hand for city staff.
Her availability to the public and those who work in City Hall did not go unnoticed. “It’s one thing to stand up and run on a platform of excellence, but she lives it,” said Assistant City Manager Randy Ready during a recent going-away party in Conner Park behind City Hall. “She had high standards, an incredible appreciation of city staff and a willingness to take the heat … she was prompt and steadfast in sticking up for us.”Klanderud said she learned mutual respect and community service early in life. Her mother, who stayed at home to raise Klanderud and her sister, took care of neighbors frequently. Her father, a beer wholesaler, often counseled his customers on their marriages and other life problems. “My father was a people-to-people person, and he cared about them,” she said. “I owe everything I know and everything I believe in about community to my parents.”
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