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DU bids farewell to a beloved leader

With the July 17, 2020, death of Joy Burns at age 92, the University of Denver lost one of the most dynamic figures in its rich history. Burns was not only the first woman to chair the University of Denver Board of Trustees, but also the generous spirit behind countless campus initiatives, buildings and amenities. 

“[Joy] was respected for her steady leadership and strategic thinking, both of which helped the University stave off insolvency and restructure for a 21st century marketplace,” DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner wrote in a letter announcing her death to the DU community. “Much as she was admired for her leadership qualities, she was also loved for her many kindnesses and for her indefatigable support of student achievement. … It’s not an exaggeration to say that Joy left a lasting mark on this campus and on all who knew her. She was ahead of her time in so many ways—as a woman leader, as a champion of equity and as a visionary who understood that the world was changing in radical ways.”

During her two stints as board chair, from 1990–2005 and 2007–2009, Burns saw the University through some of its biggest financial challenges and historic triumphs. Along with Chancellor Emeritus Daniel L. Ritchie, she was largely responsible for a dramatic transformation of the physical campus.

To Ritchie, who first met Burns when he joined the DU Board of Trustees in 1983, she was both a close friend and a remarkable partner for shepherding change. While at the helm of the board, he recalls, Burns modeled a brand of leadership that prioritized listening to different perspectives and finding common ground.

“She wasn’t what you think of when you think of a board chair,” Ritchie explains, contrasting Burns with a presiding figure who dominates the agenda and whose direction often polarizes. “She really built consensus. Under her leadership, the board seldom had dissent. When you think about what the board accomplished during that time, it was really quite something.” 

Burns was beloved by the DU community for thoughtful philanthropy aimed at improving the student experience and serving the public good. In 1997, she and her husband, DU alumnus Franklin Burns, gave $5 million to DU to establish the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate & Construction Management. In addition, her name is everywhere on campus: on the building housing the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management, on a plaza in the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts and on the community ice arena at the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness.

Burns also is remembered for philanthropic acts with more ephemeral, but nonetheless resonant, impact. In 2003, when the curtain rose on the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, Burns underwrote an appearance by a prominent baroque touring ensemble, offering the seats free to faculty and staff to ensure they could be among the first to enjoy the new venue.

An accomplished sportswoman, Burns was a tireless fan of the Pioneer athletics program. One of her first dates with Franklin involved a DU hockey game, which began her romance with her husband’s alma mater. Years later, she was instrumental in bringing DU into NCAA Division I, a feat that earned her a spot in the DU Sports Hall of Fame. 

In recognition of her service, dedication and generosity, DU presented Burns with its highest honor, the Founders Medal, at its annual Founders Gala in March 2018. The Founders Medal is bestowed upon individuals or families whose leadership and engaged philanthropy represent the pinnacle of DU’s mission and values. 

For his part, Ritchie considers her an inspiration for future generations: “She was smart, and she cared, and she did her homework.” 

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