Her colleagues called her "The Queen."
Contra Costa County Supervisor Gayle Uilkema, who died Saturday at age 73 after losing a two-year fight with ovarian cancer, was unfailingly gracious, always impeccably dressed and loved ceremonies.
She could also be imperious, and top staffers at several agencies where she governed during her 34 years in office described her as occasionally "high-maintenance."
Even Uilkema once joked, "They don't call me Queen for nothing."
The community will say its goodbyes Thursday at the funeral in Lafayette of one of the county's most enduring public figures.
Elected to the Lafayette City Council in 1978 and the Board of Supervisors in 1996, Uilkema sat on many local and regional policy boards. Notably, she was a founding member of County Connection transit agency, where she remained on the board until her death.
She may be best remembered for her ubiquitous presence at countless "citizen of the year" dinners, ribbon-cuttings and other community events.
"It was her life," said her daughter, Lynn. "Even when she was sick and housebound, she was listening to hearings in her bedroom and calling her office. Right to the end, public service was very important to her."
Uilkema unwittingly launched her public career in the early 1970s. Frustrated when she couldn't find a ballet class in Lafayette for her young daughters where they
In retrospect, her political trajectory was an obvious path for a bright woman who was a self-admitted public policy addict.
Born in Detroit in 1938, Uilkema entered the University of Michigan on a full scholarship at age 16.
She came to California in the 1960s and taught typing and shorthand at Oakland Technical High School until her children were born. She and her husband, John, divorced in an ugly split in 1990.
"For many people, a situation like hers would have been crippling," said the late supervisor's sorority sister Beverly Wyllie, who described her friend as a role model for women. "But not Gayle. She simply picked herself up by her bootstraps. It never defined her."
While serving on the Lafayette council, Uilkema had earned her master's in public administration. She parlayed her education into university teaching posts.
With Wyllie's help, Uilkema won her first and only competitive county supervisor race in 1996. She took to the job like a duck to water.
"She was the grand dame of the board," said Contra Costa Assessor Gus Kramer. "Gayle loved her job, and loved being out in the community and talking about the issues."
Uilkema advocated for many issues, including a common East Bay emergency responders' radio system, mammograms for the poor and programs to help the elderly track medications.
A lifelong Republican, she stood her ground against withering criticism of her support for a ban on .50-caliber rifles and for a taxpayer-funded girls' residential treatment center.
She even voted to ban smoking at outdoor restaurants in the county, a habit she practiced herself at the time.
"Gayle could surprise you," said Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond, who served with her for the past 16 years. "But she was typically very cautious. She saw policy in terms of incremental change."
Her colleagues often chafed under her process-oriented style. Her detractors point to her lack of solo policy initiatives during her long career.
But those were her strengths, countered retired Contra Costa Sheriff Warren Rupf.
The pair sparred over the sheriff's helicopter program -- he wanted it, she didn't -- but were strong allies. She helped him establish the county's first public safety liaison committee between a city and his agency.
"At times, her focus on process was frustrating, but it was proper," Rupf said. "She did the critical business of local government instead of creating another law and taking credit for it."
Beyond Uilkema's public persona, say those close to her, was a woman who loved dogs, spoiled her grandchildren and scoured thrift shops.
She was a color analysis devotee -- her season was "autumn," as reflected by the fall hues of her enviable wardrobe, jewelry and shoe collection.
'Service was her life'
The slim woman was also a home improvement maven and gardener who painted her own house, personally placed paver stone paths in her yard and wielded a chain saw as easily as a pen.
But nearly everyone mentions her countless acts of kindness -- handwritten notes, calls of encouragement or small donations. Her chief of staff of nine years, Steve Dexter, called his boss a stateswoman who genuinely wanted to acknowledge and celebrate people's accomplishments.
Uilkema was generous with her time, too.
Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder, who served with the supervisor on several boards, recalls when Uilkema sat in 2008 with his late wife, Carole, during her lengthy chemotherapy treatments.
"I will always remember Gayle for that," Schroder said. "Public service was her life, and she lived it."
Rosary service: 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Perpetua Church, 3454 Hamlin Road in Lafayette
Funeral Mass: 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the same church with a reception following
Flowers: Please send to Hull's, 1139 Saranap Ave., Walnut Creek, CA 94595
Memorial donations: American Cancer Society, 101 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Online memory book: ContraCostaTimes.com