Joy Burns, a longtime trustee of the University of Denver and the first woman to lead the board, died Friday at her Cherry Hills Village home. She was 92.
During her two stints as chairwoman, from 1990-2005 and 2007-09, Burns saw DU through some of “its biggest financial challenges and historic triumphs,” said Chancellor Jeremy Haefner in a news release.
“In our long and eventful history, the university has had few better friends than Joy,” Haefner wrote. “She 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. 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.”
During her service on the board, and in partnership with Chancellor Emeritus Daniel L. Ritchie and others, the university had one of its most successful fundraising campaigns in its history. That allowed DU to invest more than $400 million in new facilities and infrastructure.
In 1997 Burns and her husband, the late Franklin Burns, a DU alumnus, donated $5 million to DU to establish the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate & Construction Management. The community ice arena on campus, at the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness, is named after Joy Burns.
Joy Steelman Colwick was born Dec. 2, 1927, in Navarro County, Texas. She was among the first women in the history of the University of Houston to earn a business degree. In 1956 she came to Colorado from Houston to work for an oil company. Two years later she met Franklin Burns, a Denver home builder, and one their first dates was at a DU hockey game. And so began a romance with her husband, the university and the school’s sports programs.
In 1997, Burns was inducted into the DU Sports Hall of Fame. Burns was part owner of the Colorado Xplosion women’s professional basketball team, and she served as president of the Sportswomen of Colorado Foundation.
“If we’ve been successful in our business endeavors, that success has come from the community, and part of it should go back to the community,” Burns told the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2002.
Burns was the owner of the Burnsley Hotel, 1000 Grant St., a longtime, 16-story Capitol Hill establishment with views of the Front Range and downtown Denver. Originally built as an apartment building in 1963, it was converted to a hotel in 1969 and at one point an investment group included actor Kirk Douglas and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald. Burns sold the property in 2012 for $10 million. It’s now again an apartment tower.
Burns served on the board of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the board of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In 1995, two years before her husband’s death, she took the helm of his business, D.C. Burns Realty & Trust Co. Burns was one of the founders of the Women’s Bank, later renamed the Colorado Business Bank, and of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.
Burns joined the DU Board of Trustees in 1981 and is among the longest-serving trustees in the school’s history. She retired from the board in 2017. At the university’s annual Founders Gala in March 2018, Burns received DU’s highest honor, the Founders Medal.
“The University of Denver owes a lot to Joy Burns, to her fierce spirit, fearless leadership and her dedication to our students,” Haefner said. “She was a bright light and a force to be reckoned with. She will be sorely missed.”
A celebration of Burn’s life will be held at a future date.
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