Cover story: DU's Joy Burns: An enduring legacy of sport, learning and leadership

By Jennifer Oldham, Special to the Denver Business Journal

February 24, 2018

Outfitted in a crimson and gold sweatshirt and her trademark chocolate brown bouffant, Joy Burns is easy to spot at University of Denver gymnastics meets, hockey games and fundraising events.

Teams show off their championship-winning athletic prowess at the $84 million Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness, including the Joy Burns Ice Arena, which bears witness to Burns’ indelible impact on the capital city’s largest private university.

In the entryway to the ice arena is a stone carving of a pony-tailed female hockey player. Inside, trophies bearing aspiring hockey players proud achievements such as “Silver Stick Regional Squirt A Champions, 2016” and “12 and Under National Champs 2012” underscore DU’s deep ties to the community. Down a corridor lined with large windows opening into performance spaces, signs tout Pepsi and Coors— sponsors Burns helped attract decades ago.

“Sports give you the opportunity to find out how far you can push yourself – it teaches you about teamwork,” Burns, 90, said recently in an interview at her Cherry Hills home as her Westies, Trouble and Katy Kat, barked in the back yard. “You can’t learn that sort of thing about yourself in a classroom, you have to be out there competing — that’s what life is all about.”

Burns’ legacy as a pioneering businesswoman on the DU campus and across the Denver metro area is broad and deep. Endlessly energetic, she often spent 50 hours a week on university business alone as a Board of Trustees’ member from 1981 to 2017. 

Along the way, she developed and managed the Burnsley Hotel, and later her husband’s real estate business, foregoing sleep many nights. Burns is credited with a powerful, consistent and quiet leadership style that ensured DU’s long-term fiscal and academic success.

She became the trustees’ first female chair in 1990, at a time when debt, dramatic enrollment shortfalls and deteriorating infrastructure threatened the institution’s very future. Working with Ritchie as chancellor, she led the DU board to reimagine the university’s aging campus and raised millions of dollars to fund a sweeping building campaign. 

Their team laid the foundation for an outreach effort that ultimately increased the institution’s endowment to $711 million from $24 million. New facilities and money to provide scholarships boosted enrollment and attracted world-class athletes.

“Most academic institutions operated in the traditional way that didn’t involve long-term thinking,” Chancellor Emeritus Robert Coombe said. “Most academic institutions operated in the traditional way that didn’t involve long-term thinking,”

“Under Joy and Dan we developed long-term models, and we would roll out budgets for five years in advance so we could build resources that enabled us to do really large projects,” he added. “Her presence made all the difference for us.”

Born in Wortham, Texas, in 1927, Burns earned a degree in business from the University of Houston. In 1956, she moved to Denver and met her late husband, Franklin L. Burns, at a golf tournament. On their first date, they attended a hockey game at Franklin Burns’ alma mater – the University of Denver.

Bored with a life of traveling, tennis and fashion shows, Burns in 1972 joined the DU Women’s Library Association to raise money for what became the Penrose Library. In 1976, she helped found the University of Denver Pioneer Sportswomen in a quest to bring parity to womens’ athletics at the university.

“We had a long way to go,” Burns recalled, sipping coffee as a fire roared in the hearth. “The women had such a meager budget – they had $50,000 – and when the guys went to tournaments they got to fly, while the women had to drive.”

Architect Mark Rodgers said: “You see Joy in many surprising, influential ways on campus.”

Colorado’s centennial year also proved a momentous one for Burns, who became one of several dozen founders of the Women’s Bank. 

Its mission: To teach women how to manage a checkbook and save money and to provide them loans. At the time, women couldn’t obtain credit without a man’s signature, leaving them unable to become entrepreneurs. The bank proved pivotal to many women’s careers and long-term fiscal stability.

“We helped promote women throughout the community,” said who left a job as acting president of a competing bank to head the Women’s Bank. “Bankers all across the city said to some of their women who were junior officers, ‘Don’t get any crazy ideas about going over to that Women’s Bank because I’m going to promote you — I’m going to increase your salary.’ ”

With many men ridiculing it as a silly venture, the bank’s stock initially sold for $8 a share. Investors sold the institution in 1997 for $187 a share. Even today, women stop its founders on the street and tell them the bank ensured they could buy a home or start a business, or helped them weather the early 1990s recession without claiming bankruptcy, Orullian said.

Friends for a half century, Orullian recalled the time she taught Burns to fish on the Blue River. The truck and camper the women were to spend the night in got stuck on a slippery road.

“There we were, Joy in her in designer jeans and her bouffant hairdo, and we all pushed it and got covered in mud,” Orullian said. “She was a good sport.”

In the mid 1980s, Burns participated as a founding member of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado with a mission of allowing women and girls to earn a livable wage. She mentored women in the group, connected them with the old Denver establishment, and provided them a place to meet at the Burnsley Hotel, which she developed in the late 1970s into a five-star, all-suite establishment.

“I really remember her energy,” said Dottie Lamm, a former first lady who also belonged to the group that formed the foundation. “Her influence as an advisor, connector and convener lasted a long time.”

Burns also put her team-building skills to work as the first female chair of the Denver Metro Convention Visitors and Business Bureau, today known as Visit Denver. Working with general managers of the Visitors and Business Bureau, today known as Visit Denver. 

Working with general managers of the region’s hotels, she raised the city’s profile among businesses and tourists nationwide by putting the right people on the board and getting them on the same page, Burns recalled. The group also played an instrumental role in the development of the Colorado Convention Center.

“We worked really hard to create tourism for Denver – until then people just came to the airport and went straight to the mountains — now they just keep coming to our city and that’s good for hotels,” Burns said. “It’s always been fun being on the ground level and to see where people take it once it gets started.”

Burns’ passion for Denver is also visible at the Broncos’ stadium. A devoted fan who has attended games since the 1960s, she played an instrumental role in the campaign to build the 76,125-seat facility as the only woman to receive a gubernatorial appointment to the Metropolitan Football Stadium District

Burns’ contributions are also drawing the community to DU – and potentially future students – to the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts. Here, there are twice as many restrooms for women as for men just off the Joy Burns Plaza. To keep families together during intermissions, both are located on the same side of the light-filled area at Burns’ request, said University Architect Mark Rodgers, who worked with Burns and Ritchie to remake DU’s campus.

“If you are using that space over and over again, something as simple as not having to wait in line for the restrooms keeps you coming back,” Rodgers said on a recent campus tour. “You see Joy in many surprising, influential ways on campus.”

Dan Ritchie, who is receiving a DU Founders Medal this year along with Joy Burns, said: “During my time at DU, I never made a significant decision without checking with Joy Burns.”

Burns’ mentored female students by promoting hands-on learning opportunities at the Joy Burns Center, which houses the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management and the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management. At the hospitality school, wedding guests can watch students prepare their meal through display windows that open into the kitchen.

“It appealed to her to celebrate the students,” Rodgers said, gesturing to a second window into the prep area for guests to see the action as they enter the dining room. “This in effect is a hospitality laboratory – that differentiation is part of Joy.”

Today, Burns continues to run D.C. Burns Realty & Trust Co. and sits on the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Board and the Metropolitan Football Stadium District board. She drives at 15-year-old Montero SUV with Joy B license plates and signs texts and emails with a honeybee emoji. She displays the feisty energy that friends and colleagues cite as key to her multi-faceted accomplishments.

“They’ve made DU relevant on the national stage – our kids love her,” said Peg Bradley-Doppes, vice chancellor for athletics, recreation and Ritchie Center operations, who took the job 13 years ago after admiring the duo’s vision from afar.

“We have learned so much from her – her work ethic as a shrewd, talented business person who is so giving with her time and energy,” Bradley-Doppes added. “You just want to be better for her.”