Helen Elizabeth “Bliss” Bruen, a stalwart volunteer in the Durango community who served on countless boards and brought her visionary ideas to fruition, died Tuesday, Sept. 11, at her home in Durango. She was 74 years old.
Bruen was born Oct. 28, 1943, in Washington, D.C., where she spent her childhood. Her father, James, was a stockbroker and her mother, Alice, was a homemaker, according to Bruen’s son, David Gilford, 40.
Bruen attended college at Miami University in Ohio, taking jobs after graduation in New York City and San Francisco as a photographer and then documentary filmmaker.
She produced a number of documentaries on topics such as conflicts in Central America, peace activists in the United States and a catering business that served people with Down syndrome.
“Her passion in life was about understanding people’s stories and connecting people to one another,” Gilford said.
Gilford said Bruen went by Betty growing up and through college. But sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s while spending a few weeks in Big Sur on the California coast, she chose to go by Bliss, “which reflected her positive attitude and approach to life.”
Bruen married Steve Gilford in 1973 and the couple had two sons, David and Sam. The marriage later ended in divorce.
In the late 1980s, Bruen married Jim Judge, an archaeologist who lived in Taos, New Mexico, at the time. The family moved to Durango in 1990 when Judge received a professorship from Fort Lewis College.
Judge and Bruen have lived in Durango since.
“She loved the beauty and natural environment,” said Bruen’s younger son, Sam Gilford, 36. “And almost immediately she became embedded in the local community.”
The list of organizations and endeavors she was involved in is long and varied.
Bruen was part of the founding group of Animas High School in the mid-2000s.
Gisele Pansze, who served on the school’s board with her, said Bruen was recruited because of her experience with charter schools. She gladly helped, even though all her kids had already graduated, Pansze said.
“She got involved because she thought it would be a good thing for the community,” Pansze said. “Their (Bruen’s and Judge’s) support was invaluable to getting the school.”
Pansze and Bruen remained friends throughout the years.
“Her commitment to doing the right thing for the community was really inspirational to me,” Pansze said. “It’s just a huge loss for our community.”
Kathleen Adams, Bruen’s friend and member of the League of Women Voters of La Plata County, said Bruen had many visionary ideas to improve the communities of Durango and Southwest Colorado.
Bruen kick-started Community Cinema for Durango, which screened independent films at the Durango Public Library. The cinema series continued for more than five years.
“She brought the world to Durango,” Adams said.
“Some people see the big picture, and some people are better at seeing the baby steps,” Adams said. “Bliss was unique to have both the personality to see and start projects, and the energy to tackle it in baby steps.”
Bruen was also heavily involved in the formation of supporting the Powerhouse Science Center, which posted on its Facebook page Wednesday that she “worked on countless projects at the Powerhouse over the years. She was a visionary with ideas, a true collaborator and her enthusiasm was contagious. There’s a deep hole in our hearts.”
Most recently, Bruen worked with Rocky Mountain PBS to develop a Regional Innovation Center at Fort Lewis College that would bring local media outlets together to work collaboratively. According to Amanda Mountain, RMPBS president and CEO, Bruen and Durango resident Jim Foster laid the foundation for the Regional Innovation Center model that has been put in place in four places in Colorado, with a hub in Denver.
“The tireless focus and selfless passion that Bliss brought to everything she did was contagious,” Mountain wrote in a letter to RMPBS staff members. “When you were around Bliss, no matter the context, you wanted to bottle the essence of who she was because it was frankly intoxicating. To have lived life with such passion, commitment, selflessness and sheer excitement for life and the possibilities – it’s what we all want for ourselves and for those we love. And, man, did she do that.”
Carol Fleisher, a documentary filmmaker, was recruited by Bruen to teach students at FLC to make documentaries that could be aired on the Denver-based public television station.
“And that’s now what we’re doing,” said Fleisher, who serves as a producer-in-residence at the Durango innovation center.
Bruen had a bigger dream, however, Fleisher said.
“She wanted to bring all local media and their best resources together to inspire a new generation of storytellers,” Fleisher said. “We were all soldiers in her plan, and now someone has to take up her saber. It’s the best way we can honor her memory.”
Besides her community work, Adams said Bruen was a passionate and loyal friend.
“She had this enormous welcoming smile on her face that had optimism behind it, an energy behind it,” Adams said. “And I can’t think of anyone else who has that power of human connection, just by their body language, facial expression, intensity of conviction.”
David Gilford said his mother was driven by an insatiable curiosity “to understand people and help other people understand each other.”
“She wanted to bridge divides and harness those types of interactions to help make the community stronger,” he said.
Sam Gilford said Bruen was diagnosed with cancer in late August and immediately underwent treatment that was ineffective.
“It was incredibly sudden,” Sam said. “We were very fortunate to be able to come out and spend some real significant time with her.”