When Judith Burrus Aitken died Feb. 28, she left behind a legacy of community and political activism that changed lives in Durango and the world at large. She was 90.
Aitken moved to Durango in 1980, when her husband, Bob, took a job with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Almost immediately, she went to work in the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office as office administrator.
“She would qualify as one of the most dynamic and unique people I’ve ever met,” former District Attorney Vic Reichman said. “She was fearless in expressing her opinion, and she knew I respected it, which she appreciated.”
While working with Reichman, Aitken helped design both the Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement and Victims’ Compensation programs.
“She was always concerned about the victims,” Reichman said. “Who are most victims? Women. Judith was always interested in talking about women’s issues.”
Shari Dyer was hired as the first coordinator in the victim-support unit.
“It was a blank slate when she started working on it,” Dyer said. “I learned a lot from her about advocating. And she and a group of founders also worked hard to get the Women’s Resource Center going because she saw that women needed more help than we could give.”
Aitken’s name won’t show up as having been the president or leader of any local organizations, friend Nora Tracy said.
“She was very much ‘been there, done that,’ about that kind of thing when she moved here,” Tracy said. “But she was always willing to volunteer and share her expertise, and she had a lot of expertise.”
Much of her expertise came from work at the highest levels of our country’s government. Aitken had been involved in politics as what her daughter called “a hyperactive Democrat” since her youth.
“Bob had a kinescope of a very young Judith, when she was 20 or 21,” Reichman said. “She was interviewing a young John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.”
Aitken remained friendly with the Humphreys and Adlai Stevenson, along with other political luminaries. Her network of connections expanded when, at age 48, she went to work in Congress as the legislative aide to Kansas Rep. Bill Roy, later working with Rep. Andy Jacobs, who was on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
She was “a silver-haired product of Wichita Business College horse-trading with young, mostly male Ivy League hotshots her daughters’ age,” her daughter Lee Aitken wrote.
In Durango, Aitken brought her congressional experience to volunteer weekly in the office of U.S. Representative, later Senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
“She was a Democrat in a very democratic way,” said Ann Brown, who ran Campbell’s local office. “She believed that once you were elected, you served everyone, Republicans and Democrats.”
Sally Bellerue considers herself lucky to have been included in Aitken’s weekly Friday lunch group, one of several lunch groups to which she belonged.
“She could talk a kind of politics you wouldn’t expect in Durango,” Bellerue said. “She was so instrumental in getting people involved. We saw it at the League of Women Voters, too, where she was a lifetime member.”
Aitken’s interest in women’s rights began early.
“She was a feminist before the term gained currency, embracing the role of wife and mother with talent and flare but never acknowledging its limits,” her daughter Lee wrote. “She had soloed in a Piper Cub airplane at the age of 18, and in the years when she was sewing party dresses for two daughters and making a beautiful home for Robert, she also ran for Wichita (Kan.) City Commission. The first woman to survive an open primary, she was narrowly defeated in the 1957 general election (when her opponent ran) with the slogan ‘Vote against the woman.’”
Her interest never waned.
“She used to take those Susan B. Anthony coins and have them drilled, then give them to her friends to wear,” fellow Women’s Resource Center founder Lou Falkenstein said. Susan Lander, former executive director of the WRC, said her Susan B. Anthony necklace is one of her most treasured possessions.
But in the end, it’s Judith Aitken, the person, who will be most remembered.
“I consider her a surrogate mother,” said Judge Jeffrey Wilson of the 6th Judicial District, who got to know her when they worked together in the district attorney’s office. “She was one of the smartest people I ever met, but she had a lot of wisdom, too. She understood people and not only what’s right or wrong, but what you should or shouldn’t do.”
An earlier version of this story attributed several quotes to Judith Aitken’s daughter, Connie Aitken. The quotes actually came from an obituary her daughter Lee Aitken wrote.