Ellen Pedersen died peacefully at home on the last day of August, with her husband Luke Danielson at her side, after a long and determined battle with cancer.
Ellen was born March 3, 1960 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a family of Danish immigrants. Her father, Kjeld Pedersen, left Denmark in the early 1950s in search of opportunity. The family of her mother, Isabel Halager, came from Denmark a generation earlier.
They were people ready to cross an ocean with little but the clothes they were wearing, some pocket change, and a crumpled paper with the address of a distant relative who might be willing to help them.
Ellen’s first big shock was starting kindergarten, and finding that none of her teachers or classmates could speak Danish. The classes were all in Spanish, a language of which Ellen could speak only a few words. Nevertheless, she persisted.
When Ellen was 10, her family moved to Bahia Blanca, a major grain port far to the south. In high school, Ellen was a fine athlete; a long jumper and hurdler. She credited her time away traveling to athletic events with avoiding the attention of the Argentine military dictatorship, under which many people her age suffered imprisonment or perished. The halls of her high school were patrolled by soldiers.
Her father remodeled the truck in which he delivered wholesale groceries to little towns around the south, to take his family along and go camping. The extensive nature reserves of southern Argentina kindled Ellen’s interest in wildlife.
She became a fine student. Upon graduation from high school, she enrolled at the Universidad del Sur. Summers, she volunteered to work on wildlife studies in the Nahuel Huapi National Park near Bariloche, where she had happy adventures camping in the Andes.
After graduation, Ellen went traveling around South America. She found opportunity in Ecuador, where she was hired as a nature guide in the Galapagos. After training at the Charles Darwin Research Station, she became a guide on one of the boats taking tourists around the islands. She loved the work. The boat company took her passport and said they would get her proper work papers. But the company was misleading its employees. There were no work permits. Ellen was an “illegal alien,” and was deported from Ecuador.
While in Ecuador, she met her first husband, who was German. She moved to Germany, where she had to learn another language. They decided to go to Ethiopia to work on a German funded aid project at a rural university. The transition from living in Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, to Ethiopia, one of the poorest, during its civil war, when things were at their most difficult, was jarring. Ellen worked in remote areas of Ethiopia on research related to the Simien Wolf. She learned Amharic, one of the Ethiopian languages.
Ellen received a grant for graduate studies at Texas A&M University. She moved this time to a rich country, to start her master’s degree program. Her biggest difficulty was that she didn’t speak English.
She overcame that problem with her usual determination, and obtained both her master’s and a doctorate. Both her theses focused on ground dwelling birds.
She then worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game doing research on the Common Sage Grouse, and was eventually offered a position with the Colorado Division of Wildlife doing research on the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
Ellen loved doing field research on the local grouse population, and learned her way around some remote corners of the county, in blizzards in the middle of the night. She also loved her volunteer work at the County Multicultural Resource Office, and the opportunity to work with others who were experiencing the challenges of being immigrants, which were so much a feature of her own life.
She eventually was told she was too senior to do field work, and needed to sit at a desk, an idea she did not relish. At the same time, the director position at the Multicultural Resource Office became vacant. She had met Luke here, and they decided to make Gunnison their home, a decision they both regarded as one of the best they ever made.
So Ellen made a career change, and spent the rest of her professional life working for the benefit of Gunnison’s growing immigrant population, a passion which only deepened over time.
She was very proud to be an American citizen, and deeply grateful to this community for the outpouring of love and support during her illness.
Ellen is survived by her husband, of Gunnison; her mother, Lisbeth Halager de Pedersen; her brother Miguel; niece Katrine and nephew Cristian Pedersen, all of Bahia Blanca, and niece Paula Pedersen of Buenos Aires; as well as her godchildren Maria Jose and Gregory Blanco of Gunnison.
At Ellen’s request, a Celebration of Life will be postponed until the current pandemic has subsided.
There will be a Rosary today, Sept. 3, at 5:30 p.m. with mass following at 6 p.m. at St. Peter’s Church in Gunnison.
An Elena Pedersen Scholarship Fund, designed to help children of immigrants, or others whose parents have not had the chance for higher education, will be administered by the Community Foundation, which will gratefully accept any donations at PO Box 7057, Gunnison, CO 81230.