She only has a few more months to go before she has to step down and become a private citizen again. She says she’s looking forward to it. But I can sense that Helen Klanderud is not entirely resigned to her fate. “It’s the law,” shrugs the feisty First Lady of Aspen. “The voters of Aspen could remove the three-term limit provision, but although people talk about it, there never has been an initiative to do so.” She leaves the: “But I’d run again in a second…” hanging. Its presence is palpable throughout our conversation.
And what a conversation it turns out to be. Part Margaret Thatcher, part Florence Nightingale — and entirely, and refreshingly her own person — Mayor Helen Klanderud offers up a vision of modern mountain living that is both provocative and progressive.
She’s lived in Aspen for over 35 years and loves the town deeply. Loves it in a knowing and profound and respectful way. For she also understands the cultural challenges inherent in the modern community/resort conundrum. Knows first hand how brutal it can be for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Klanderud first arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley in 1971, a single mother with four young kids in tow and a job offer as social worker in a local clinic. “Nobody moved here to work in those days,” she says with a throaty laugh. “Everybody was here to ski…”
But finding accommodation in Aspen was no easy matter — even back then. “I knew we’d need a fairly big place for the five of us,” she explains. “And when I looked at the rentals available I realized I was better off paying a mortgage and owning my own place.” So she bought a house — for the princely sum of $59,000. “My dad thought I’d gone crazy — literally,” she says with a laugh. “Back in Nebraska, that was a lot of money…”
But she never looked back. Never questioned her decision. “I now have the great good fortune — through dumb luck and practicality — to have a place to live that is worth over a million dollars ,” she says. And snorts in amusement. “In fact, it is not the house that is worth that much, but rather the land. It is my home, I love it, but it needs work…”
Like so many other people who moved to the mountains in the 1960s and ’70s, Mayor Klanderud came to Aspen looking to start a new life. “I wanted my kids to grow up in a healthy environment,” she says. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, however, Helen wasn’t afraid to immerse herself in the maelstrom of every day life. She’s been the director of a mental health clinic. A social worker for the local schools. She founded Alpine Legal Services, a program that helps those who can’t afford legal aid. She is also a board member of the Right Door, a program for substance abusers and their families. For nearly four decades, she’s been working deep in the trenches, dealing with Aspen’s human issues. You’d think she’d be a raving socialist.