Helen Klanderud shaped modern Aspen as a politician and private citizen, friends and colleagues recalled Friday.
The first female Pitkin County commissioner and three-term mayor of Aspen, who died Thursday, also was remembered as a driving force behind the founding of the Aspen Counseling Center, Aspen Homeless Shelter and Alpine Legal Services. She was a calm and discrete leader of nonprofits in difficult times, and an indefatigable social animal — a ubiquitous presence at jazz and classical concerts, and the only septuagenarian in the Aspen Young Professionals’ Association.
“I think more than her political legacy, her humanitarian legacy will always be in the city of Aspen,” said Bob Braudis, who served with Klanderud on the county board and as sheriff while she was mayor, but first got to know her as a fellow single parent in the early 1970s. “She was giving and she never stopped.”
Her work as a civic leader and spirited volunteer was going full speed at the time of her unexpected death, leaving the Aspen community shocked at her sudden absence. She was at a party at the Hotel Jerome over the weekend, at screenings for Aspen Filmfest on Sunday night, and at a meeting of health and human services agencies on Tuesday.
Braudis recalled ribbing her for her ubiquitous presence at meetings, community events, dining at fundraisers and at brown-bag lunches for nonprofits: “I said, ‘When was the last time you fired up the stove at home?’ and she said, ‘Bob, I haven’t been to the supermarket in seven years.’”
Laura Thielen, artistic director of AspenFilm, recalled a concert by The Quarrymen after a film screening at the Wheeler Opera House in 2010 when much of the crowd filed out and left during the performance. Klanderud, then 73, was primed to keep having a good time. She turned to Thielen and asked, “Why is everybody going to bed so early?” adding jokingly: “What’s wrong with Aspen?”
Finding her niche
Born in Kansas City, Mo. in a home for unwed mothers, Klanderud was adopted and grew up in Lincoln, Neb. Her father was a beer wholesaler, and she later recalled traveling from bar to bar with him, drinking soda and watching the way her dad related to clients, informally counseling them about their families and personal issues.
That personal touch and passion for helping others, led her into a career as a clinical social worker and sparked her lifelong community involvement.
She wrote her first letter to the editor of a newspaper at age 12, she recalled this summer in an Aspen Historical Society presentation, signaling her self confidence and beginning a life of outspoken civic engagement. The letter protested the pending closure of a local Nebraska lake, where she ice-skated in winters.
“They didn’t close the lake,” she recalled. “But I doubt my letter had anything to do with it.”
Her involvement in the Democratic Party began in her 20s, when she was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s’ “bear any burden, pay any price” credo and the civil rights movement, she recalled this past summer.
She moved to Aspen from Denver in 1971, with her four children — Kurt, Erik, Kaela and Soren — after her divorce from their father. She left her post working at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center, which was moving toward dealing with chronic patients rather than people in crisis.
“My favorite work is with crisis cases, acute cases and character disorders,” she recalled.
She bought a home east of Aspen, where she raised her four children and remained there for the rest of her life. She took a job in Aspen with Touchstone Mental Health Clinic, a grassroots mental health organization founded two years prior to her arrival. It was the first resource of its kind in Aspen, aimed at helping the influx of young hippies with drug and alcohol issues.
“The physicians had no idea how to treat their drug-related problems,” Klanderud recalled in her Aspen Historical Society talk. “They had no idea what they were taking.”
She went on to become the director of Touchstone, which she helped expand into the nonprofit Aspen Counseling Center.
“She was a forerunner in understanding the need for mental health and substance abuse treatment in our community,” county health and human services director Nan Sundeen said.
Klanderud combined her knowledge as a social worker with her community organizing skills to expand local resources for the less fortunate, addicted and mentally ill — helping to found the local homeless shelter, to start the nonprofit Right Door substance abuse service and to get voters behind tax measures supporting such resources. In 2002, she was instrumental in the countywide campaign for the Healthy Community Fund, a mill levy to support social services and community nonprofit programs, which was renewed and raised by local voters in 2006 and 2011.
She also served on countless arts nonprofit boards during her 42 years in Aspen — Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, AspenFilm and Jazz Aspen Snowmass among them. She was involved with the founding of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation (AWF) in 1976, and served on and off as a board member in the decades that followed. She was elected president of the board just months ago.
“She had the ability to be a tough questioner, but at the same time, when an issue came to a resolution, she would have a broad smile on her face,” said Dennis Vaughn, whom Klanderud succeeded as president of the AWF board. “She was tough, but tough with a softness.”
Several nonprofit leaders noted Klanderud’s empathy and judgment, which helped guide them through hard times.
“There are things organizations go through that are difficult and awkward that you don’t want to be all over the street,” said Thielen. “She was really honorable and discreet. She didn’t gossip and she didn’t go some place negative if she thought it would work against the greater good.”
In 1980, during intermission of a Sunday Aspen Music Festival concert, then-mayor Herman Edel encouraged Klanderud to run that fall for a seat on the board of Pitkin County commissioners, which was expanding from three to five members.
She ran and won, becoming the first woman on the county board. The victory over Tom Isaac came by just 40 votes out of 5,126 — the first in a string of nail-biter elections through her career in electoral politics.
In 1986, after two terms on the county board, she opted to run for a state senate seat, this time losing by 500 votes.
Jim True, a former county commissioner and current Aspen city attorney, recalled election night at Klanderud’s home with fellow campaign volunteers and Democratic Party leaders.
“I remember her just collapsing into herself with, ‘Oh my gosh, I lost by a few votes,’” he recalled. “She was disappointed and she was upset, but she was so gracious in that loss.”
Following the loss, Klanderud, at 50, with her four children out of the house, returned to Nebraska, to go to law school and care for her elderly mother.
She returned to Aspen after law school and helped form what is now Alpine Legal Services, the nonprofit providing legal services for the poor.
It was around this time she began her sartorial trademark: always wearing black.
“People would tease her about it and she’d say, ‘Oh I wear lots of other colors ... along with the black,’” said former Aspen mayor Mick Ireland.
She returned to politics in 1999, challenging Rachel Richards for mayor of Aspen. She lost by just 14 votes.
Richards, now a county commissioner, recalled Klanderud as a formidable opponent.
“I thought of her as intelligent and self confident,” she said. “When we were later working as colleagues I admired that about her, but it made me work harder when we were on opposite sides.”
In 2001, she ran again, this time beating Richards by another close margin of 927-878. She was re-elected in 2003 and 2005, those two by landslide margins.
A number of colleagues commented Friday about Klanderud’s ability to disagree but remain friendly in politics. Richards remembered going to Syzygy for a glass of wine with her after one of their campaigns, and surprisingly struck up a lasting friendship.
“She said, ‘You’re not all that bad a person. This is kind of fun,’” Richards laughed. “We realized, putting policy differences aside, we had a lot in common as strong single women and leaders.”
Her tenure as mayor included accomplishments like the joint city-county purchase of the Smuggler Mountain Open space, the annexation of Burlingame Ranch for affordable housing, the creation of bus lanes on Main Street and the “infill” rezoning of downtown to create more density. The last action, touted by Klanderud as a way to favor downtown development over urban sprawl, remains a polarizing one and a subject of debate.
Ireland, a frequent sparring partner with Klanderud over infill and development-related issues, said, “No matter if you agreed with her or not — and we certainly didn’t always agree — she was a voice for the best interest of Aspen at heart. You knew she was coming from a place of the heart, not of personal gain or animosity.”
She also became the first mayor to attend the social services community’s monthly POD meetings, making health and human services a city priority and integrating government with the human services nonprofit sector.
Former city attorney John Worcester called Klanderud a “great mayor,” noting her open-door policy with citizens, her encouragement of city employees and changing the culture of City Hall to cut red tape.
“Her only agenda while mayor was the well-being of the town,” he said. “Her unselfish service to the community she loved will be sorely missed.”
After leaving office, her leadership continued in the nonprofit sector, and in lower profile ways. Sundeen offers one example. In 2009, Pitkin County’s Emergency Services Fund — used to help people buy food or pay rent during hard times — ran out of money, due to post-recession demands. Sundeen received an unsolicited call from Klanderud, who sat on the board of the Colorado Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, saying that the organization could help. Their support helped carry the emergency fund through 2011.
“We didn’t even have to write a grant application, because Helen vouched for us,” recalled Sundeen.
She started and ran the public affairs committee for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association in recent years, shepherding the business organization through its conflict with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over climate change policy and through the chamber’s initiatives on immigration reform.
Debbie Braun, president of the chamber, said Klanderud was a mentor and an example for her, in her public life and devotion to her family.
“She taught me to be brave and to stand firm in what you believe,” Braun wrote in an email. “She taught me to have fun and not everything needs to be heavy. She showed me how much a mother could love her children. She was a mentor to me at first but in the end like so many others I was honored to be her friend.”