Remembering Sandy Widener

In memory of our good friend…

Maggie Barrett, Judy Holland, Kim Jacques, Janine Vanderburg

On Friday it will become real. A memorial service. At the Buell Theatre because so many people will be there.

Janine: The sense that has only been there since my older daughter called us on December 23 as my husband, our younger daughter, his brother and my nieces, and me are driving home from a holiday gathering at my brother’s.

John, Sandy and Chase were killed in a car crash.

No. Impossible. In the year that so many have left us. Fred Mayer. Bill Michaels. Larry Manzanares. My father. This must be a mistake. And even though it is midnight when we return home, we conclude it must be a mistake. It is not on the news. Not on the Internet. No phone messages.

It is real. The next day the calls come in. Jeannie comes home. She pulls out all the pictures of her and Chase and all the amazing girls from Mitchell/Denison/Hamilton Montessori, and later East High School. I call Judy and Maggie. Kim calls me. It is real, but not believable.

Judy, Kim, Janine: For days following their tragic car accident, the local papers and TV stations highlighted the major role that John Parr had played in helping to shape state and local policy. These news stories often included quotes from Bill Ritter, John Hickenlooper and a host of other prominent Coloradans lamenting the loss. However, these stories seemed to overlook Sandy who was typically referred to as John’s wife and “co-founder of Westword.”

That doesn’t begin to describe the Sandy that we knew and loved. So here is our story of the woman we knew:

  • Sandy, single-handedly running the Reading is Fundamental program for more than 10 years, organizing hundreds of book orders, and making sure that books get into the hands of all of the children at Mitchell Montessori, the amazing school that all of our children attended.
  • Sandy, organizing school fundraisers, the silent auctions, using her considerable contacts to get the kinds of things that people would bid on and that would raise money so that all children at Mitchell would have access to the best in arts, music and everything else.
  • Sandy, creating and actively leading a Girl Scout troop for our daughters; finding time to head up the annual cookie sale; and accompany our daughters on numerous camping trips.
  • Sandy, angered as were we all when in 1995 the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, in its infinite lack of wisdom and simultaneous hypocrisy, decides to close Mitchell Montessori after using the school’s phenomenal results with children of all races/ethnicities and socio-economic background, after using the school’s results to convince Judge Matsch that Denver should no longer be subject to federal court jurisdiction.
  • Sandy, the queen of the pre-meeting, spending hours on the phone strategizing with her fellow Mitchell parents about how to save our school.
  • Sandy, one of the busiest people we ever knew, who always found the time to help put on yet one more successful event or to listen patiently to the concerns of a worried friend. Her kitchen was cluttered with piles of research and notes related to her latest projects, and yet she was always happy to move a few piles to the floor so you could sit and share a cup of coffee. She was a gourmet cook and charming hostess who thrived on drop-in company for dinner. Her kitchen was always crowded with friends and friends of friends (and even a few strays).
  • Sandy, the shrewd former investigative reporter who knew how to find out what was really going on (the story behind the story). If you needed hard-to-get information, Sandy was the person who could get it for you.
  • Sandy who hosted some of our fight-the-school-board meetings at their wonderful home, and deployed her wry humor when a Mitchell teacher questioned why we are organizing against the district (the day after the school board voted to move the school): “Aren’t we glad that one of our children’s teachers doesn’t read the paper?”
  • Sandy, helping to organize the move to the much smaller Denison school, and leading a group of parent volunteers to staff/replace everything that Denver Public Schools had decided they would strip from the successful magnet program.
  • Sandy, with John and all of us, helping to set up the Friends of Public Montessori group that would raise funding so that DPS’s decision to charge tuition for 3 and 4 year olds would not deny low-income children access to high quality Montessori education.
  • Sandy, the primary cheerleader at back-to-school nights in our severely overcrowded new school: “Isn’t this curriculum WONDERFUL?” she would say. It was not a question.
  • Sandy, single-handedly creating a weekly school newsletter, so that everyone would know what was going on in our new location.
  • Sandy, working with all of us, to create and advocate for, a middle school Montessori program.
  • Sandy, the mom who always found the time in her day to chauffeur the kids on school field trips, take them swimming on school holidays, and who spent hours each year editing draft after draft of our kid’s Obra Grandes and providing feedback as they rehearsed their oral presentations.
  • Sandy, creating a girls’ group for all of our daughters, at her house after school, as they were navigating the initial challenges of adolescence.
  • Sandy, who secured a make-up artist from Saks at one of Chase’s birthday parties, to make all of our beautiful chicas even more beautiful.
  • Sandy, who always greeted each of us, with the words that only a mother of a middle or high-school aged daughter will really appreciate: “Wow, I really love your kid!”
  • Sandy, who continued this run at what she did so well, at East High School.
  • Sandy, the behind-the-scenes organizer, who used her personal connections and persuasive talents to tirelessly advocate for a great education for all of the city’s kids, convincing everyone she knew to attend her fundraising events for school board candidates or to become active in local political campaigns.

We will miss John. He was a friend and colleague to us, and the father of our children’s good friends. We will miss Chase, and our children are heartbroken that she is gone, and what Katy has to face.

How do we remember Sandy? Dan Gross said this: “What a loss to the community. With Sandy gone, a lot of important work just may not happen.”

We know this; we know how tiring it is to do this behind the scenes work and how many people bail. Sandy never did.
So now this does becomes real-you are not coming back. But you leave a rich legacy, one that will have to sustain us as we learn to say good-bye for a long time to come.
OUR QUESTION: How do we recognize women like Sandy who contribute so much?

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2 Responses to Remembering Sandy Widener

  1. jvaconsulting says:

    From Maggie Barrett: Sandy had such a vibe, an irresistible energy, a most unforgettable laugh, such a smile, twinkling blue eyes that would draw me in. I loved when I could be in her orbit.

    She was powerful. She was brilliant. She was a leader and knew how to get it done. She was a life-long Girl Scout-always prepared. Her efforts were infused with intelligence, passion and love. Nothing seemed too daunting. She was sturdy stuff. Sandy didn’t see problems, just another way to look at things from a different perspective. Whether it was strategizing to save Mitchell Montessori in her kitchen, carefully choosing children’s literature, ordering and hauling endless boxes of books for RIF, writing books, boiling drinking water for 17 Girl Scouts and a couple of novice leaders, organizing endless fundraisers, baking, creating, writing letters of support for a grant I was writing at the museum, she always found time to give of her many talents. We could pick up where we left off no matter how long it had been since we had spoken. Sandy was not made for the shadows-she was top of the heap. She was a wellspring of warmth to everyone who knew her, so genuine, a terrific mother, creative, so full of fun.

  2. nancy cohen says:

    Sandy always had a laugh and a smile for everyone. Her enthusiam for the girl scouts was great. The troop did the typical stuff–sell girl scout cookies and go on outings. I went with Sandy and the girls rafting down the Arkansas. What a blast– Sandy liked her RAB when we got off the river. The troop also did atypical events. I remember when the girls decided to protest the Iraq war in front of the Adams Mark Hotel– where President Bush was speaking. What an event. Lcukily they were not wearing their girl troop uniforms.

    Sandy loved the East Choir. She was always so proud of her daughters and anyone else she knew in Choir. I loved watching her beam with pride and joy when talking about the concerts. Sandy was not one to sit back but worked hard for anything she believed in. She worked hard for the Choir, raising money and putting together the silent auction. What a fantastic job she did.

    Sandy was a strong and vocal advocate for Montessori education. I worked with Sandy and others to convince DPS that a Montessori middle school was needed. She worked tirelessly and we were successful. Her insights were wonderful and right on target.

    I agree with Maggie. Sandy was brilliant, warm, fun loving, funny and opinionated. She was a bit messy in her house but didn’t care. The girls could be making a mess and she was always calm. Sandy was a great mom to her daughters and to others.

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