The morning of April 20, 1999, Colorado Communicator of Achievement Marilyn Saltzman’s life changed forever. Two armed teenagers strode into Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, and shot and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and wounded 26 others.
Marilyn, then a school district communications manager, was “in the center of that storm,” said her boss at the time, Rick J. Kaufman. Marilyn took the lead communications role for Jeffco Public Schools, which she’d joined in 1982, and worked the next 17 days straight, dealing with news media from around the world, devastated families and a traumatized community. The Columbine story continued to play out for many months.
“She helped others find the words and stories to honor the victims. She helped move the leadership team toward a new sense of normalcy. She brought calm and peace at the most challenging times,” said Kaufman, now executive director of community relations for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools.
Becoming an expert crisis communicator after a horrendous school shooting is but one aspect of our talented COA’s life and career. Marilyn also edited a community paper, wrote for The Denver Post, taught university PR students, ran a consulting business, co-authored five books, served Press Women for 45 years in state and national posts, received more than 10 major professional and community awards, championed media literacy efforts, and gave time generously to her Jewish congregation and neighborhood charities. She also blogs and is a student of Mussar, a Jewish spiritual practice based on the idea one improves by cultivating virtues.
“Marilyn has long been one of my heroes,” said Sandy Nance, CPW president. “She is nationally recognized for her expertise in crisis communications. She was the wind in the sails in getting media literacy into Colorado’s K-12 curriculum. I always look forward to reading her blog. My appreciation of the magnificent Marilyn is always growing!”
If there is a common thread through Marilyn’s decades of achievement, it’s writing. “I’m happiest when I’m sharing ideas and writing,” Marilyn said. “I’ve had lots of outlets for that.”
Marilyn was born Marilyn Schwartz and raised in Brooklyn, NY, the eldest of three children. The writing bug bit her early. As a pre-teen, she and her father, an accountant, co-wrote a limerick that was published in the state auditor’s newsletter. She received her stern father’s praise and her first byline. She later edited her high school newspaper and was elected Class Journalist. Majoring in Spanish at Brooklyn College with a New York State Regent’s Scholarship, Marilyn also was an editor of the college paper. Upon graduation, magna cum laude, in 1968, she became a junior-high Spanish and English teacher, and married Irv Saltzman, also a teacher and Brooklynite.
In summer 1970, the two lifelong New Yorkers decided to see other parts of the country. They made a list of places to visit — Colorado topping the list — packed the 1965 Chevrolet Impala Irv’s parents had given them as a wedding gift and drove to Denver. The second planned stop, California, never got a chance. The Centennial State became home. Their children, son Kevin and daughter Heidi, were born here in the next few years.
In 1976, Marilyn became a stringer at the Golden Transcript, a five-day-a-week paper in the Denver suburb best known as home of Coors Brewing Co. Her favorite cutline, taking a first-place award in the National Federation of Press Women’s communications contest, highlighted a photo about Coors’ (unsuccessful) foray into the candy bar business: “Coors, Now in Bars.” She loved reporting. One highlight was covering then-President Jimmy Carter when he visited the state to announce Golden had landed the coveted National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
She became the Transcript’s society editor and later, managing editor. In 1979, The Denver Post hired her as a reporter for its western suburbs edition. She had to send articles to the newsroom downtown with a primitive predecessor of the fax machine. A single page of paper took six minutes to transmit — enough time to fold a load of laundry, Marilyn discovered.
Her beat included Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district. When its communications services office had a job opening, Marilyn was invited to apply. In 1982, she began what became a 20-year-long career in Jeffco, handling media relations, publications, internal communications, and crisis and communications counseling, training and planning. Columbine (many people know the tragedy by just this word) was a defining moment.
“It was life-changing. You realize what is important and how fragile life is,” she said. She attended the school’s 1999 graduation ceremony, just weeks after the shootings, and broke down sobbing afterward when Irv picked her up.
“I couldn’t let myself feel until then. I had to do my job,” she said. Fourteen months passed before the day came that the communications office did not receive a call about the massacre.
Although it was no longer a daily duty, Columbine continued to be a focus of Marilyn’s work. In 2004, with Linda Lou Sanders, she co-authored the book “Dave Sanders: Columbine Teacher, Coach, Hero” about the Columbine teacher who was killed. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Linda Lou, Dave’s widow, was overwhelmed. Marilyn’s boss dispatched her to sit with the bereft woman, and they became friends.
Marilyn also wrote a chapter, “Community and School Healing Together,” in the 2012 book, “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma,” which won the Colorado Book of the Year Award.
As a consultant, Marilyn often concentrated on crisis communications. In 2006, she helped coordinate the response to yet another school tragedy, this one in a Bailey, CO, high school. A gunman took six girls hostage and shot and killed one before committing suicide. In 2008, Marilyn prepared a comprehensive report on victims’ services for the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. She continued to write and lecture about crisis communications in subsequent years, working with school districts across the nation.
Although largely retired, Marilyn keeps writing. She launched a blog in 2012 when she went with her daughter Heidi to China to adopt Dian, now 13. The blog took first place in the 2021 NFPW communications contest.
But even in the blog, sad memories arise. When 10 shoppers at a Boulder grocery died in a mass shooting in March 2021, Marilyn wrote, “Not again! … Memories overtake me. Crying students, shell-shocked staff, frantic parents. Helicopters buzzing overhead. Racing ambulances. Bloodied classrooms.” Happily, many of her blogs involve lighter or thoughtful subjects: her travels; her grandchildren; and often, Mussar, which Marilyn embraced when her rabbi at Congregation Beth Evergreen taught a course.
A decade studying Mussar has mellowed the impatience Marilyn has long felt. “Mussar has changed my whole attitude about how to interact with people,” she said. She’s more mindful and aware of choices people must make in their lives. She taught Mussar to Dian and his sister Selam, 13, adopted from Ethiopia, during the Covid lockdown, and has led Mussar classes through the local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and other forums.
Later this year, she and her rabbi will teach a course intertwining Mussar and anti-racism, also a passion of Marilyn’s, entitled “Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out.” The course will ask the question: “Do I have the courage to confront my own bias? We’ll be looking at courage, kindness, patience, honesty and honor, and how to apply these to racism,” she explained.
Marilyn’s anti-racism work dates back to helping form Jeffco Schools’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Department as well as the Community Diversity Advisory Council, on which she served for many years. Through this work, she is a two-time recipient of the district’s Wayne Carle Diversity Award and received the Colorado Education Association Bates Award for Outstanding Service in Human Relations and the 2000 Season for Nonviolence Certificate of Appreciation.
Mussar also inspired her latest book, “Your Love is Blasting My Heart: A Grandmother’s Journey.” Published in 2020, the book took second place in NFPW’s communications contest. It’s a memoir that explores how her grandchildren inform her Mussar practice; the title came from a note Selam wrote in third grade to Marilyn.
That Marilyn gives her all to endeavors is clear. Colorado Press Women, which she joined 45 years ago at the suggestion of the Golden Transcript editor, is no exception. She was drawn by the people and the programs. “They were accomplished women who had interests like mine,” Marilyn recalled. At her very first meeting, Marilyn agreed to edit the CPW newsletter. Marilyn also has been president, president-elect, vice president and secretary. She serves on the program committee and board and has chaired CPW’s media literacy committee since 2018.
“Media literacy is really important to me. It’s essential to our democracy. It concerns me that so many young people get their information from social media and don’t learn critical thinking skills,” Marilyn said. Her efforts began after a 2018 CPW program about restoring the public’s faith in the media. Marilyn convinced CPW the place to start was in schools and got support from the Colorado Language Arts Society, Colorado Student Media Association, Colorado Press Association and 9News to promote media literacy. She worked with Colorado Rep. (now state senator and CPW member) Lisa Cutter and other lawmakers to boost media literacy efforts and served on the state Media Literacy Advisory Committee. Colorado passed laws creating a media literacy resource bank and a K-12 media literacy curriculum.
On the national Press Women level, Marilyn co-chaired the 2006 NFPW Convention, held in Colorado, and served as national membership chair in 2008, Communicator of Achievement coordinator in 1997-1998, and on several national committees at the request of leadership.
She also was a member of the Colorado Chapter of the Public Relations Society of American (PRSA), was former president of the Colorado Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), and was a national conference speaker and committee member for NSPRA. She also belongs to the Jefferson County Administrators Association.
She was accredited in public relations in 1998 and earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado-Denver in 1991, making the dean’s honor list, being inducted into the business students’ honorary and receiving a Graduate Dean’s Scholarship.
During her career, Marilyn has received more than 50 awards in CPW’s annual communications contest in writing, editing, public relations and books; multiple entries have gone on to be honored in the national contest. That barely touches the total number of awards and honors showered on her. A sample includes Jeffco Administrators Association Hall of Fame in 2022; Gold Medallion, National School Public Relations Association, 2000; Swede Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award, PRSA, Colorado chapter, 2002; and Jefferson County Schools Diversity Award, 2002 and 2007.
Living in the unincorporated Jefferson County community of Conifer since 1979, Marilyn strives to help her neighbors. She loved raising her children in the wide-open Rocky Mountain foothills where they gave their own names to the mountains they saw from hikes and built a teepee in the backyard. To many metro area dwellers, Conifer and nearby towns appear well-to-do, but housing, utility and food costs can be a challenge, Marilyn said. The pandemic intensified the numbers of people in need.
Marilyn is proud she helped launch a pandemic-era mobile food pantry that travels through much of 774-square-mile Jefferson and some of Park County through the Mountain Resource Center. MRC helps low-income families, seniors and veterans in the two neighboring counties. Marilyn has served on the MRC board since 2016 and was president from 2019 to 2021.
“Marilyn’s commitment to MRC and her community is unmatched,” said Sarah Kinzer, MRC’s chief executive. “She had dedicated countless hours to the service of our clients and has been an instrumental mentor to me.”
Marilyn also helped launch a mobile mammography van in Park and Jefferson counties while serving as board president of the Denver affiliate of Susan B. Komen for the Cure from 2006 to 2008.
In addition, she is secretary of the Conifer Area Council, which identifies and addresses community issues, and was board member, secretary and treasurer for a decade for the Mountain Water and Sanitation District, which provides clean water and wastewater treatment to her neighborhood.
And between 2003 to 2022, she was a board member and former chair of Jefferson County’s Good News Coalition. The organization dates back to 1989 when several Jeffco residents formed a group from churches and synagogues, service and professional organizations, businesses and schools, to recognize positive things happening in the county at its annual Good News Breakfast.
Marilyn said her parents passed her the community service “gene.” Both were involved in religious, professional and community organizations. “I took that to heart,” Marilyn said. “I was taught you give back to your community when you can.”
In her spare time, Marilyn loves being with her grandchildren. This year, she was able to resume their tradition of traveling together on spring break. Because Covid halted their trips for several years, the three decided to go big in 2023: Marilyn and Dian are going to Italy, and Marilyn and Selam went to Belize. “Making memories with them is important to me,” Marilyn notes.
She also enjoys traveling with friends, reading with her book club, and meeting with the gourmet club she and Irv joined about 30 years ago. She and Irv are “parents” to a pair of 4-year-old rescue mutts who are sisters. Marilyn’s grandchildren named the dogs Lila and Lix.
Rick Kaufman, her former boss, told CPW that “Marilyn embodies all who inspire to lead by their words, writings and service to others.”
We agree. Colorado Press Women is proud to nominate a member of Marilyn’s caliber as NFPW Communicator of Achievement.