Contra Costa County Supervisor Gayle Uilkema died Saturday morning with her family beside her as she lost her two-year battle with ovarian cancer.
She was 73.
Uilkema, who had served 16 years on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and 19 years on the Lafayette City Council, planned to retire from public service at the end of the year. As her illness progressed, she had begun missing meetings in December before announcing earlier this year she would not seek re-election.
In March, she was celebrated and named Lafayette Citizen of the Year while overcoming a bout of pneumonia. She spoke about her health. "That is all you can do, continue to work and follow the doctor's instructions," she said. "The most disappointing thing is you have to miss meetings. I enjoy the meetings. That's where all the ideas start growing, but of course people have been very understanding about it and very supportive about it."
The four-term supervisor has sat through her fair share of meetings.
"Ever since the third grade, I was involved in some kind of student government," Uilkema, a grandmother of three, said after receiving her honor in March. "I always realized that was the most important level, at the ground level."
Originally from Detroit, Uilkema studied vocational education at the University of Michigan before starting a family and moving to the Bay Area. Once in Lafayette, she grew concerned about the lack of recreation classes for her two young daughters.
She was appointed to the recreation commission, soon becoming chairwoman, and noticed a dearth of female leaders in the community.
"I was living in an area that was growing, and subdivisions were going up left and right, but I noticed that all the decision-making bodies were all male," she said. "The school board was male, the City Council was all male and any other groups I saw, church groups, were all male. I thought, 'Hmm, nobody seemed to be bothered by that.' But I was bothered by it.
"I was always looking for what is my life's goal. Maybe mine is to make social change."
Uilkema was elected to the Lafayette City Council in 1978, serving five terms as well as four stints as mayor.
In 1996, she was elected to a supervisor post, serving Central Contra Costa. She was instrumental in finalizing the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and the Veterans Memorial Building in that city.
As part of her county post, she served 15 years on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and on the powerful Local Agency Formation Commission. She has taught graduate courses at UC Berkeley and Cal State East Bay.
In her decades of service, Uilkema preferred to stay in Contra Costa.
"Even to this day, I have been asked, 'Would I run for state Assembly and other offices?' " she said in March. "I always said 'no,' because local government is the most important government. I've lived that creed, and it has been very rewarding to me."
A rosary service will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Perpetua Church, 3454 Hamlin Road in Lafayette. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the same church with a reception following.
Flowers can be sent to Hull's, 1139 Saranap Ave., Walnut Creek, CA 94595. Memorial donations can be sent to the American Cancer Society, 101 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.