Once a year, Aspen Sojourner recognizes three individuals or couples who have done much to enrich lives locally. Choosing them often occasions lively debate in our office, but, ultimately, we always agree on a trio we feel fortunate to honor. Our salutees this year: a bike-share entrepreneur who also curates her renowned grandfather’s photos, a couple who founded a nonprofit to help ease the financial burden for locals with cancer, and the leader who transformed the Aspen Institute into a multifacted, community-serving entity.
When two employees of Aspenites Barbara and Bruce Berger were stricken with cancer, the financial burden of traveling for regular therapy became immediately apparent. “They couldn’t afford the gas money for weeks of radiation in Edwards,” Barbara recalls. “We supported them, of course, but we saw a real need to help people cover the secondary costs associated with cancer treatment and lost wages.”
To help others in similar situations, the Bergers founded the Quality of Life Cancer Fund in 2007. Over the last decade, the couple has hosted an annual fundraising dinner in the garden of their West End residence, raising more than $1.5 million for the charity. Working with local hospitals and oncologists to screen applicants, Quality of Life has assisted an estimated 500 cancer patients in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Many patients, living paycheck to paycheck, worry about how to pay rent or a mortgage, or fly a relative in to care for their children,” observes Dr. Doug Rovira, an oncologist at Aspen Valley and Valley View hospitals. “Bruce and Barbara’s approach to relieving the financial devastation of a cancer diagnosis is innovative and deserves recognition.”
Says Barbara of the yearly gathering, “We wanted to have an evening of song and levity, a program on cutting-edge advances in cancer research, and a home-cooked meal.” Everything for the event is contributed. “The Music Festival donates opera singers every year, and we provide the food and labor,” Barbara notes. “Bruce and our son Seth cook dinner for 100 people”—no small feat considering the planning, ordering, and food prepping required. “I try to select a menu that I can make out of two small home kitchens,” Bruce says. A close friend, Dr. William Kaelin of Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, recruits luminaries in research to speak.
The evening epitomizes the Bergers’ philosophy of philanthropy: giving is doing. The couple hosts dinners for many other nonprofits, too, including Anderson Ranch Arts Center and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (for which Barbara sits on the board and recently chaired the 20th anniversary campaign). Bruce, who owns BB’s restaurant in Aspen, also prepares all of the food for these meals, occasionally enlisting his chef for final cooking and plating of large dinners. “I’ve been cooking since I was five years old,” he says. “It’s my passion. Opening the restaurant in 2010 was on my bucket list, although Barbara calls it my mid-life crisis at 72.”
Following a profitable career in commercial and residential development in New York City, Bruce moved his business to Denver in 1990, becoming one of the prime developers of what is now the Golden Triangle Creative District. In 1992, the couple moved to Aspen. Bruce continues to oversee the construction side of Berger Realty from here, while Seth runs the business end from New York.
Barbara, meanwhile, worked as a corporate art consultant in New York. “I started Confluence in 1972,” she says. “It was the era of corporations and law firms trading flocked wallpaper for real art on the walls.” With encouragement from renowned gallerists Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp, she specialized in the downtown world of emerging artists, building a successful career that continues today. She later brought that expertise to the board of Anderson Ranch, initiating and co-curating the auction at the art center’s annual Recognition Dinner, which has raised more than a million dollars over the past 10 years.
“Life has been good to us,” Bruce says, “and Barbara and I are honored to give back.”