When the news came Monday, just seeing the name in the subject line was enough to make its recipients dread opening the message.
The confirmation came quickly: Bertha Jean Fellows, 86, one of Colorado Springs' most influential women of the past half-century, died Sunday night at home, with her husband of 67 years, George Fellows, at her side.
For those who have known Bert, it came as no surprise. She had been going downhill in recent months, though she never lost the gritty spirit that defined her personality.
Now she's gone, but many of us who have appreciated her impact on this city aren't quite ready to let go.
We're not talking about somebody who made a difference long ago and then vanished into the background. Far from it. From the moment she and her family moved here in 1966 until her declining health no longer would allow it, Bert Fellows was making this city a better place.
She was never simply following in the shadow of her husband, the highly respected Colorado Springs city manager who retired in 1983 after 17 years on the job. In fact, if you asked George now, still going strong at 90, he'd say he was always trying to keep up with his wife. And if he needed advice on any issue involving the city, she would listen and then provide it.
But there was much more in Bert's life, which makes her worth eulogizing here. More people need to realize how important she was.
She had a cause from the start. Their daughter, Georgeanne Fellows, was born with developmental disabilities in the early 1950s. Bert became a driving force in The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region (then known as the Association for Retarded Citizens), and she would serve at various times on that organization's board. In fact, the Arc's local chapter named its award for Volunteer of the Year in her honor.
During the 1990s, I served seven years on The Arc's local board, three years as president, and having Bert in the meetings was invaluable. Whenever the group would wander off-topic, she would bring everyone back into focus. And when the subject involved advocacy or guardianship issues for those with disabilities, Bert always stood out as the revered authority.
But that was just the start of her civic involvement.
In the early 1970s, as Colorado Springs began mushrooming into the city it is now, the rapid growth created new community needs. Bert was a dynamo, actively helping develop several entities that would become vital.
Just in 1971 alone, she helped start Silver Key to serve the area's senior citizens, and also was among the founders of Cheyenne Village, which provides housing and services for adults with developmental disabilities. (Disclosure: I'm the current president of Cheyenne Village's board.) Her daughter has been one of Cheyenne Village's residents since 1974.
As if that weren't enough, Bert and other community leaders, including future congressman Joel Hefley, were among the group in 1972 that started the Health Association of the Pikes Peak Region (now Pikes Peak Partnership), a umbrella of one staff serving multiple nonprofits and operating the city's Amblicab service.
There's still more. Bert became the first woman president of the local Red Cross, as well as a longtime leader and volunteer in the Assistance League of Colorado Springs and Goodwill Industries.
Yet she never boasted about what she did, or had done through the years. In fact, it's safe to say Bert wouldn't be thrilled at people making a fuss about her now. She wouldn't like this attention.
Sorry, Bert, but this is one debate you won't win.
Perhaps the best tribute comes from Ann Turner, longtime Cheyenne Village executive director.
"Long ago, Bert adopted the role of crusader for families everywhere," Turner says, "and she made us better as caregivers. But she really helped shape the entire city with her will to make things better."
That's because, as someone else put it, "Bert was one tough lady."
One tough lady. In fact, Bert Fellows might not even mind that simple tribute, or this one:
They just don't make 'em like her anymore.
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