Denise Atkinson, described by one former colleague as embodying the “spirit of Bramley”, the west Leeds suburb which she represented from the age of 22, passed away earlier this week.
Among her proudest, most lasting achievements, she was instrumental in setting up the Lineham Farm Children’s Centre and served as chair of Leeds Bradford International Airport.
The leader of Leeds City Council, councillor Judith Blake, was among those paying tribute today.
Coun Blake said: “My heart goes out to Denise’s family and friends at this incredibly difficult time.
“Denise served the ‘republic of Bramley’, as she liked to call it, for four decades.
“In that time she worked tirelessly, even throughout her illness, chairing many committees, overseeing Leeds-Bradford Airport as its chair and she had a fantastic year as Lord Mayor, which culminated in the establishment of the much loved Lineham Farm.”
Ms Atkinson stepped down from the council in 2012.
She had represented the Bramley ward for Labour since 1971.
Public service ran in her family, and she was inspired by her father, Eric, a long-serving Labour councillor and Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1980. Ms Atkinson served as Deputy Lord Mayor when her father was Lord Mayor.
She served on and chaired many committees and for 10 years was chairman of Leeds-Bradford Airport when it was owned by West Yorkshire’s five local authorities.
Tony Hallwood, the airport’s Aviation Development Director, said: “Denise was a larger than life character and back in the 90s played a key role in the growth and development of Leeds Bradford Airport.
“Working alongside the board of directors in the period before the airport was privatised, Denise will be remembered for her direct but engaging manner.
“She always made sure that Leeds Bradford Airport, Leeds and Yorkshire were always at the forefront of everything she was involved in. A true ambassador for the city and the airport.”
One of the highlights of Ms Atkinson’s time on the council came in 1992, when she was chosen to be Lord Mayor and, as her civic charity for the year, set about trying to raise enough money and support to convert derelict Lineham Farm, near Eccup, into a children’s holiday and educational centre.
The appeal proved a great success, raising £862,000 to get the project underway.
Over the past 20 years, facilities at Lineham have expanded and improved and thousands of Leeds schoolchildren have enjoyed countryside breaks at the farm.
Paul Rogerson, chair of the Farm’s trustees, said that the Lineham Farm Children’s Centre would stand as “a lasting tribute to Denise’s singular determination and quite remarkable energy”.
He said: “Denise’s vision was for Leeds youngsters, and more particularly those from the city’s poorer areas, to have a place in the countryside to enjoy, and call their own, and Denise worked tirelessly over many years to see this vision realised.
“Initially, as the city’s Lord Mayor, Denise led efforts to raise an unprecedented £500,000 to get the Lineham Farm project off the ground.
“Then, as the founding chair of the Farm’s trustees, Denise went on to inspire staff, volunteers and generous donors to work to enhance the centre, and to give the city what it has today - a superb facility of which Denise, and Leeds as a child friendly city, can rightly be proud.”
Neil Taggart, who served alongside Ms Atkinson as a Bramley ward councillor and became “firm friends” with her as they sat next to each other in the council chamber, recalled her joyful spirit and mischievous energy in getting involved with the political theatrics of the job.
He said despite her illness, she “confounded the predictions and defiantly carried on, refusing to succumb”.
“For many people Denise Atkinson was the spirit of Bramley, an ever-doughty fighter on behalf of her constituents,” he said in an extended online tribute.
“She will be missed by many. May she rest in peace.”
On announcing her retirement from local politics, Ms Atkinson, who had suffered ill health for a number of years, said: “I have done 40 years and when I was first elected I never thought I would be on the council for that long.
“I have enjoyed being on the council and in many ways I will miss it.
“I like Bramley, I like the people and it’s been a privilege to work for them.
“I feel I have worked hard and done my best. We have achieved a lot at Lineham Farm and I will certainly keep involved with that.”
She leaves behind her husband, Stephen, who spent many years caring for her, and her son, Timothy.