A 501c3 Charitable Organization

Brenda Lilly

It is never too late to give someone else a smile.

If you run into Brenda Lilly and you don’t already have a smile on your face, she’s got something for you. She will reach into her bag and pull out one of the many dad jokes she keeps at the ready. “Why did the farmer’s wife yell at all the chickens?” she’ll ask with a grin. And when you don’t know, she will gladly tell you. “Because they were using foul language!” Most likely, you will offer a smile in exchange for the riddle, and Brenda will continue on with her day, pleased that she brightened someone else’s. 

Growing up in a small town in Maine, the oldest of six sisters, Brenda often relied on her outgoing, gregarious personality to get through the darker days of her childhood, the worst of which were shadowed by her parents’ abusive marriage. Brenda dreamed of a different life out west, and once she was old enough and had taken some business classes at community college, she decided to make that dream happen. With no plan other than Colorado as her destination, she tossed a couple suitcases into her little yellow Volkswagon and set out, getting as far as Pennsylvania before her nerves took over. “This is crazy!” she thought to herself, and drove back home. Brenda’s dad reminded her how much she wanted to go, and with that encouragement, she summoned the courage to try again. That time, she made it all the way. 

Once she was settled in Denver, Brenda found work as secretary to the Colorado Attorney General and, later, as assistant to the director of Colorado Ski Country USA, a job that came with the perk of not one but two gold passes, granting access to any ski area she’d ever want to visit. The allure of those passes, she now jokes, just might have played a part in the next big event in her life: meeting the man who would become her husband. 

Hoping to find love, Brenda signed up for First Impressions, a matchmaking service for local singles in the days before online dating became ubiquitous. She gave them a few photos and wrote up a bio to share with prospective suitors, stating with candor and her trademark good humor what to expect. “If you are looking for someone who can cook, don’t pick me,” she warned. “I once tried to make jello and it never got hard.”  Paul, an up and coming businessman (and also an avid skier who just might just enjoy the use of a gold pass, she thought) was undeterred by her lack of culinary prowess and from the time he turned up for their first date, things just clicked. On their first anniversary as a couple, Paul put on a record of Ann Murray singing her hit song Could I Have This Dance, and by the time the singer crooned, “Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?” Brenda was in tears and they were engaged. 

Brenda and Paul tied the knot and had two daughters, Kate and Amanda. Paul’s business took off, and with the blessing of that financial success, the couple wanted to model for their girls that blessings are to be shared. Adopting a class of dreamers at Lafayette Bilingual School, they made a commitment to the kids that went far beyond simply writing a check; those students became an extension of their family. Through tutoring, academic awards, sleepovers at their home, and every possible type of support, Brenda and Paul strove to open the world to these students. Their intervention had a big impact: many of the kids in that class, all of whom came from families with little formal education, went on to college. “It is the best thing we ever did,” Brenda says with pride.

In a life so full of blessings, there were also challenges to be faced. Paul was diagnosed with a cancerous melanoma and, no sooner had they gotten that under control, Brenda learned she had breast cancer. Always one to fall back on her wit, Brenda quips, “Little did I know when we took our vows that we were going to do literally everything together!”  

With both cancers finally chased into remission, Brenda had returned to her usual routine, splitting time between Colorado and California and frequenting writers’ festivals and speaker series, when she began to notice her memory slipping. At first it was no worse than the usual signs of an aging mind – a misplaced item, a forgotten task on a to do list – but as time went on, the lapses became more serious. The doctors diagnosed “mild cognitive impairment” but to Brenda, it certainly doesn’t feel mild; it feels frightening.  

Facing what comes next will require every bit of the courage she exhibited on her bold cross country journey so many years ago. For now, she does the most she can with the time she has, paging through her extensive collection of dad jokes and writing down a few to take with her every time she leaves the house, just in case she comes across someone who needs to hear one. 

It is never too late to give someone else a smile.