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By John Peel



Forks in the road led Ellen Roberts to Athena Award
February 16, 2004

Forks in the road led Ellen Roberts to Athena Award. Durango, Colorado.
Ellen Roberts, named the 2004 Athena Award winner at the Durango Chamber of Commerce's banquet in January, sits in her law office Tuesday.

Ellen Roberts moved to Colorado in 1981, an environmentally minded easterner who dreamed of running the National Park Service and becoming Secretary of the Interior.

As a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger, that didn't seem such a stretch.

A couple of decades later, she's a Durango lawyer who helps people plan their lives and deaths. And she's involved with numerous local nonprofit organizations; her role as Mercy Medical Center board chairwoman and proponent of a new hospital has brought her to the spotlight.

Life decisions have led her to an unexpected place. "You know, those forks in the road," she says. But it's a place where she feels very comfortable.

If it's true that people are destined or needed somewhere, "This is where I'm supposed to be," she says.

Roberts, 44, last month attended the Durango Chamber of Commerce's annual citizen awards banquet. She was "kind of zoning out" about two minutes into the presentation of the Athena Award by Sheri Rochford when it dawned on her: "Gosh, this is starting to sound a lot like me. ... To be honest, I thought I was going with my friend Ann Butler and keeping her company."

Says Butler, "She was really kind of mad at me for taking her." And that was after Roberts received the award.

Roberts still has trouble explaining exactly what the Athena Award is, but it's basically this, according to Rochford, a 1993 Athena winner: To recognize outstanding professional women who are committed to the community and to helping other women in business.

Durango auto dealer Jim Morehart first sponsored the award in 1990, back when Oldsmobile promoted the Athena nationally, and he continues to do so.

Roberts, an estate-planning and probate attorney, is pushing for a new hospital for Mercy and a new library. She claims she has pared her causes to three - Roberts is also a member of the board at First National Bank of Durango - but during an interview at her Fifth Avenue office, others surface. There's the Citizens Health Advisory Council, the High Noon Rotary and Club 20, for starters.

Her philosophy: You should be engaged in the community where you live. "I don't know any other way to be."

While working mostly on issues regarding Mercy, Roberts has spent time at the state Legislature, learning how to write and pass bills under the tutelage of Rep. Mark Larson. Larson, because of term limits, can serve only one more term.

Because of her social activism and environmental bent, it surprises many to learn that, like Larson, she's a Republican.

"It's probably no secret I'm interested in Larson's job," says Roberts.

Roberts grew up in Rhine-beck, a town of 3,000 in the Hudson Valley about 100 miles north of New York City. After graduating with a self-created major in environmental policy from Cornell University, she was on her way to Houston to try to get a job in the energy field. She planned to push alternative energy, to be a "reformer from the inside."

But Rocky Mountain National Park called with a job offer, and she took off for the West. She'd wanted to for many years, spurred by memories of a family drive to southeast Utah's Goosenecks State Park when she was 9.

Within a few years she had made a flurry of career and personal decisions. She began to study law at the University of Colorado, got married in 1982, got her first law-firm job in Granby and returned to CU to complete her law degree in 1986.

Then came daughter Caitlin, now 17, and son Ben, soon to be 15.

She and husband Rick, a homebuilder, moved to Durango with their two children in 1989, despite being told that "the last thing Durango needs is another builder and another lawyer."

"When I came here in 1989, I thought Durango was a big city," she says. It's only gotten bigger. "I realize you can't freeze things in time."

Roberts, of course, is urging a big change: Grandview development and Mercy's hospital. She believes a new hospital is "critical to quality health care," and that's why she has devoted herself to it.

"I don't track the time exactly because the numbers would probably be frightening," she says. "I never expected the amount of hurdles that you have to go over."

Like "The Little Engine That Could," the train engine in the famous children's book her grandmother read to her, she keeps plugging away at the hospital, just as she kept chugging away last summer at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. She completed the 50-mile citizens ride for the first time.

Other hobbies include family and friends, reading and bowling, a pastime currently on hold for want of a facility.

Yes, someone should be pushing for new bowling lanes, she admits. But she doesn't have time, at least not right now. Too bad - seems like it would be right up her alley.

John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. Reach him here .



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