Mildred Danielson Oppenheimer

Dec. 8, 1925 – Aug. 26, 2023


Milly Oppenheimer died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Mill Valley, California, on August 26, 2023. She was 97.

She was born Mildred Vandevier Page on December 8, 1925, in Grand Junction, Colorado. Her father was John ChatfieldPage, a farm boy from Syracuse, Nebraska. Milly’s mother, Mildred Sloan Page, was born in a sod house on a prairie homestead outside Syracuse, Kansas, where her father was the town’s only doctor and first coroner.

When Milly was 5, she, her parents and older sister Jean moved from Grand Junction to Las Vegas, Nevada, then a town of slightly over 5,000 people. Big things were brewing, and her father was at the center of them, starting with the construction of Boulder City, Nevada, which was the camp where construction workers on the world’s largest dam project were to live. Milly’s family were among the first residents of Boulder City, a parched, brown collection of dormitories for single men, and cottages for families. Her father played a leading role in developing Boulder City, and then in building what is now known as Hoover Dam, one of the world’s engineering marvels.

Milly learned to love the desert environment and developed a firm belief that electric transmission lines were beautiful, always imagining what animal they looked like. They represented a better life for farm and ranch families, and people in the small towns in the West.

Her father’s role in successful completion of Hoover Dam catapulted him to the position of commissioner of reclamation. From 1937, the family lived in Washington, D.C., where he served as commissioner at the height of the New Deal, during the bureau’s greatest era of dam building. Parker Dam, Friant Dam, Imperial Dam and Grand Coulee were among the numerous projects built under his leadership. Page, Arizona, is named after him.

Milly lived with her parents in Washington and attended what was then Woodrow Wilson High School, from which she graduated in 1943. She went home to the West and enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She had an outstanding singing voice and performed many of the popular songs of the era, from “In the Mood” to “Stormy Weather,” at a variety of local venues. She majored in history, which became a lifelong enthusiasm. Like so many of her generation, she was profoundly affected by World War II. Her college sweetheart died in the explosion of an ammunition ship. 

After the war, Milly met a fellow student just discharged from the Army Air Corps, Phil Danielson. They shared many interests – prominent among them, an interest in politics. They married the year they graduated. It was a happy match.

Their son Luke was born in 1948, followed by Nora (1950) and Carrie (1952). Phil’s ambition was to be a small-town journalist. He taught journalism, and Milly taught physical education at Fort Lewis College, located on what had been an old cavalry post outside Durango, Colorado. He tried running a newspaper in Longmont, Colorado.

Ultimately, the difficulty of making a living in journalism led him to start law school at the University of Colorado. It was not easy for a couple with three small children, but he graduated and went to work for a Denver law firm, where he eventually became one of Colorado’s leading water lawyers. They lived in Boulder.

Milly and Phil were, in the early 1950s, neighbors and friends of David and Frances Hawkins, faculty members at the University of Colorado. David Hawkins was one of Robert Oppenheimer’s students at Berkeley and became his administrative assistant at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Through the Hawkins family, Milly and Phil met Frank Oppenheimer, Robert’s younger brother, and his wife Jackie, with whom they developed a lifelong friendship.

Milly over time got more deeply into politics, holding various positions in local and state Democratic Party organizations. They were strong supporters of Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns and worked hard for the election of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. 

Like so many others, they became increasingly distressed by the growing war in Vietnam. They abandoned support of Johnson and the party regulars. Colorado selected an antiwar delegation for the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968. Milly’s deep knowledge of Colorado politics and her extraordinary organizational skills were a major factor in that result. 

Phil was elected a delegate. He died of a heart attack in Chicago during the convention, at age 42. His last act was to support seating the Mississippi Freedom Democrats in place of the all-white delegation supported by Mississippi party regulars.

Milly and Phil were very close, and she had a hard time with this loss. She ultimately moved forward by finding a cause to which she became dedicated. 

The University of Colorado School of Law for generations had a virtually all white, all male student body. But times were changing. Milly was hired by the law school to diversify its student body. Through extraordinary effort and dedication, she – with colleagues Assistant Dean Russell Olin and Admissions Director Pearl Colvin – made great strides in thar direction. She became a support for a generation of law students.

Her wide contacts made her very effective in placing students in jobs for which they might not otherwise have been considered. Often placements in these various positions were firsts, as these were often the first minority workers hired into firms and agencies. It was a tumultuous time at the university. Milly always helped these students, male or female, minority or majority, even in times of heightened tensions.

Milly maintained her long friendship with the Oppenheimers. Jackie died in 1980. Two years later, Milly and Frank married, and she moved to Sausalito, California, where he lived and managed the Exploratorium, an innovative science museum he founded.

After Frank’s death, Milly lived the remaining years of her life in Sausalito and Mill Valley, California. She was a volunteer for the National Park Service and enjoyed opera, museums, archaeology and travel. She is survived by her children Luke, Nora and Carrie Danielson, Nora’s husband Howard Petrick and their son Nick Petrick, Carrie’s husband Chris Reed, and their children Christopher (Kari Poag) Reed, Alissa (Chapman) Olgun (Ari Olgun), Joshua Reed (Sarah Strom) and Arthur Reed. She leaves great-grandchildren Lu and Charlie Rae Reed, Milo and Ezra Olgun, and Magdalena and Clara Ellen Reed.

Contributions are welcome to the Philip Danielson and Mildred Oppenheimer scholarship at the University of Colorado School of Law.