Adrienne Anderson, R.I.P.: Remembering driven environmental activist and ex-CU prof

We've just learned about the death earlier this month of Adrienne Anderson, a former environmental-studies professor at CU-Boulder and a champion for environmental causes. She had a prickly personality -- in a March 2005 column about one of her many scraps, we dubbed her "The Pain." But there's no denying that she believed deeply in the causes for which she fought.

Anderson was a player in numerous Westword feature articles over the years, including August 1994's "Hard to Swallow," about drinking-water safety in the Friendly Hills subdivision; October 1994's Rocky Mountain Arsenal-cleanup piece "Oversight Overkill;" an April 1995 look at a Rocky Flats watchdog dubbed "Choosing Sides;" May 1995's "Don't Touch That Dialogue," involving a critical examination of the Colorado Center for Environmental Management; and May 1997's "Sister Sludge," in which she stirred up a sewage board with a warning about plutonium.

Eight years later, at the time of the 2005 Message item linked above, she became the target of brickbats rather than the one tossing them. The following excerpt provides an overview of the controversy that followed her ouster from CU-Boulder:

It was a bad week for Adrienne Anderson.

On February 3, the environmental-studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she's taught for eleven years, was informed that she wouldn't be reappointed to her post. The following morning, after a night during which Anderson says "I was unable to sleep and in distress," she fell down the stairs in her home, breaking her leg in three places. She underwent surgery and was not well enough to attend a rally staged several days later by students demanding that her contract be renewed. Then, on February 10 -- "my birthday," she reveals -- the Rocky Mountain News published an editorial headlined "CU Making Right Call on Anderson," in which the anonymous author described her as "an instructor whose rhetoric on environmental issues has been almost as reckless as the ranting of Ward Churchill."

Despite being physically incapacitated and zonked on assorted painkillers, Anderson didn't raise the white flag à la CU president Elizabeth Hoffman, who resigned rather than continuing to scrap with her detractors. Instead, she sent a February 17 e-mail to Vince Carroll, editor of the Rocky's editorial page, labeled "Notification of Libel and Request for Publication of Rebuttal" -- a phrase dripping with lawyerly terminology. She went on to say that the "defamatory" editorial had been published "with malicious intent" and asked that the Rocky publish a refutation written by her "in its Saturday edition, of equal or greater length, and of equal or greater font size for the headlines and text" as a "minimum measure of response."

The Rocky didn't blink when hit with this missive, but neither did Anderson, who boasted an "uncompromising personality and relentless manner" that led to "a widespread reputation for being difficult," I wrote. The column continued: "Some reporters are in her corner, but others say that working with her on an investigation quickly becomes an exhausting, all-consuming task, and if they subsequently try to withdraw or question any of her presumptions, she's apt to conclude that they've been silenced as part of a massive plot. If not, they're simply 'too lazy to do the work I've done.'"

Lazy she wasn't -- and in the end, the only thing that put a stop to her quest to make the planet a safer place was cancer. Yes, she could be a pain, but she was also, unquestionably, a Colorado original.

More from our Media archive: "More Messages: The Anderson File."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts