By Emily Dresslar
In Telluride, a small town with big-time happenings, everyone has a favorite way to give back to their community. Some volunteers live for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, while others take their turn serving on the board of a local non-profit organization, bartending at the Telluride AIDS Benefit, or working the checkout at the KOTO-FM radio station’s annual ski swap. For longtime Telluride resident Marilyn Branch, however, it is easier to ask in which community organizations and festivals she is not involved. “Blues and Brews,” she answers definitively. “I have to just enjoy myself during at least one event a year.”
The rest of the year it’s back to work, and not just the kind she gets paid for as a professional event planner with her own business, Weddings in Telluride. It’s also her volunteer duties, which were extensive enough to have Branch recognized as 2009’s Citizen of the Year by the Telluride Foundation for her 25 years of service to the community. At one time or another, Branch’s beneficence has included (but is not limited to) the Telluride Rotary Club and its international student exchange program, Angel Baskets, Young Life, Telluride Wine Festival, Telluride Jazz Celebration, the local women’s network, Bluegrass Festival, Christ Church and the Balloon Festival.
It is Telluride’s Balloon Fest, the summer season’s most picturesque yet precarious festival, for which Branch is perhaps best known. For 17 years she’s headed up the small event that occurs each June—or not—depending on which way the wind blows. The festival’s early morning hot air balloon flights and evening “glow” on main street are vulnerable to weather conditions and often get cancelled. “People ask me, ‘Why do you keep trying?’” says Branch. “Because every once and a while, you get to do it. Balloon Fest really gives something to the community. It’s probably one of the most photographed events in town. And it’s one of those first events of the summer season that really brings families out of their homes to greet each other on main street.”
A balloonist herself since the mid-1970s, Branch loves the camaraderie associated with the sport. “It’s a whole community in and of itself,” she says. “I was in Kenya, years ago, and took a commercial trip. I looked at the pilot and said, ‘I know you.’ And he recognized me, too. That’s how it is in that community.”
Community is a common theme in Branch’s life and has been since she first visited Telluride in the 1970s, when the ski area was still in its infancy. She was instantly intrigued by the town’s small charms and big possibilities. “There was this little trolley car pulled by a horse that would give you a ride over to Chair 7. It went all over town and you would put your skis on the outside and get in,” she remembers. “You could walk to Chair 7 faster than you could get there by horse, but still…” By the early ’80s, Branch, who organized tours and worked in sales and marketing in Santa Barbara, California, was back in Telluride, leading a tourist group of 100 people. That trip led to a job offer in Telluride, where the new ski area was just starting to put the unusually named town on the map. She moved here despite the fact that no one knew exactly where she was going.
“Everyone told me I was crazy,” she recalls. “They thought Telluride was in New Mexico. But it was adventurous. I loved skiing, I loved being in the mountains, and it was exciting to be here with Telluride just getting going.”
It was a new era for the Town, and Branch decided to put down roots here. She became an active member of Christ Church and created a home for herself and her daughter, Kim. Branch spent time skiing, hiking, traveling, working for various local employers and volunteering her time for community organizations. One of her closest associations was, and continues to be, the Telluride Rotary Club—a service club made up of professional community members. Rotarians in Telluride raise funds for student scholarships, participate in community service projects, and make sure all third graders in the region have brand new dictionaries.
Branch runs the Rotary Club’s international student exchange program, placing Telluride teenagers in study-abroad settings across the globe and, in exchange, helping to welcome international students into Telluride classrooms and homes. What started with a singular Rotary exchange student 10 years ago has blossomed into a popular, competitive program under Branch. This fall, instead of getting the typical handful of requests for applications, she handed out nearly 40 applications at Telluride High School. She is passionate about her volunteer work with the student exchange, for which she was named Rotarian of the Year. “I love being able to help the students through this opportunity, through the ups and downs of the exchange,” says Branch. “I always tell parents that they are not going to recognize their students when they get home. They are more mature, more independent, with a new mind-set. It really helps them to see all of what they can be.”
Her work with the Rotary’s exchange students, says Branch, lets her travel the world vicariously, keeps her energized and helps her stay in touch with her youth. “I don’t know that I’d be able to load one, but at least I know what an iPod is,” she laughs.
Despite all the ways she has been able to give back to her community, Branch says she still owes plenty to this little town that has provided the good life for a quarter of a century. “As much as Telluride has changed in the time that I have been here, it still has a community that is Telluride,” says Branch. “If I can make a little difference, that’s where my passion is.”
Being named 2009’s Citizen of the Year won’t change that. “I’m not one of those people who gets an award and just quits,” she says. “I will continue to keep going with weddings, with volunteer work, with everything. I am very, very happy doing what I’m doing.”