The quintessence of a survivor: Former Denver City Councilwoman Polly Flobeck dies at 81

Denver Post file MAR 5 1963, MAR 14 1963 Popular Denver Couple Betrothed Enjoying a seafood dinner at the Denver Club are Miss Polly Sargeant and John Flobeck, to be wed in midsummer. Credit: Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Years after leaving an abusive marriage Flobeck overcame her fear, championed for battered women and helped to enact sweeping comprehensive reform in the way restraining orders are enforced

She had a great sense of humor. She was very creative, very artistic, very intellectual and very well read, said Lorna Sargeant Pfaelzer, describing her sister and former Denver City Councilwoman Polly Sargeant Flobeck.

Flobeck, a fourth-generation Coloradan, died in her home state Sept. 25 after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 81.

“She’s a great girl. I loved her very much,” Pfaelzer said. “She was very serious about her jobs, whatever they were. I don’t know how she came to be in the position, but she was extremely passionate about it, more than any other career.”

Her original career was not in government. She graduated from Vassar College in 1954 with a degree in art history and was an interior designer, but no other career suited her as well as the last one she held before retirement. After a 1975 divorce, she attended business school to hone her skills at typing, shorthand and accounting. She became the assistant to the Councilman Paul Swalm. When he retired, he prodded her to run for his seat.

Flobeck served as a District 5 councilwoman from 1991 to 2003. She was active in many local civic and cultural associations and nonprofits and was a member of multiple boards, most notably the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District board and the Lowry Redevelopment Committee.

“She was a passionate, socially moderate, fiscally conservative, great person,” said former Mayor Wellington Webb. “The more you were around her and got to know her, the more you liked her.”

She had her share of hard knocks in life, yet she managed to always be a positive force with a smile on her face. She became a vocal advocate for battered women in the wake of a federal study that showed lax enforcement of restraining orders in Denver and Boulder. That and the specter of surgery convinced her that she owed it to abuse survivors to tell her own story.

In 1993, two years into her 12-year stint as councilwoman, Flobeck was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With the prospect of surgery looming, Flobeck revealed another devastating battle that she had fought in her past. A battle at home with her husband, Jack.

“I can’t tell you what set him off,” Flobeck said in a November 1993 interview with the Rocky Mountain News. “He got into this rage. He just erupted. He came toward me and he had this crazy look on his face, grabbed me around the head and hammered my head against the cement wall in the basement. That first time it scared me terribly. That is when you should leave.”

That was first of many attacks, she said. She endured steady physical abuse from him. It started when she was pregnant, she said, and escalated throughout their marriage, which ended in 1975.

“My mother was a very private person, but she was very public about having been a battered woman,” Flobeck’s son John said. “She was a very moral person and was always concerned with doing the right thing. She thought that was the right thing.”

Fawn Germer was a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News working on a year-long project about domestic violence. The Urban Institute study, which tracked women who had obtained temporary and permanent restraining orders over a year’s time, showed that Denver and Boulder police failed to make arrests in 80 percent of the cases when victims sought help. When Germer called Flobeck for comment, she learned her story of abuse.

“Polly had a big impact as a member of City Council,” Germer said Saturday. “However, in terms of what she did coming forward, that probably affected the most lives. Polly was so courageous.”

In response to the story, Flobeck’s ex-husband attempted to preserve his name in a follow-up story with the Rocky Mountain News. He started off by calling her crazy and ended by saying she “deserved to be hit” and that he had “walloped” her.

“The abuse affected her deeply,” Pfaelzer said. “She never married again. Never dated. It was a really horrible thing for her and her children. I was absolutely amazed that she went public. She was afraid of him and I admired her for doing it. I hope it helped others. It was very hard for her to do.”

Germer later called Flobeck and asked her to speak with another public official about how liberating it was to speak out against her abuser. Colorado Secretary of State Victoria Buckley decided to shared her own story of domestic abuse after Flobeck spoke to her. By January 1994, several Colorado lawmakers were pushing a package of laws aimed at protecting battered women and their families.

“I remember her quite well. She was a very special person,” Webb said. “When she was elected, she was excellent in working with us. As councilwoman, she was tireless in her work. She exceeded beyond expectations.

“Anyone in politics will talk about what a nice person she was, and that’s tough in this business. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t like Polly Flobeck.”

A private service was held in her home Monday. She was cremated and placed at Fairmount Cemetery.

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