Helen Brown Gilstrap of Rohnert Park passed away peacefully on Oct. 14, 2015, at the age of 93 with her daughters at her bedside. Helen’s friends and family describe her as a woman who had a gentle elegance and grace, deep kindness, a great spirit, and a wonderful sense of fun.
She was born Oct. 13, 1922 on a ranch near Columbus, Mont., and “grew up on a horse.” She was also a gifted musician, and by the age of 12 was playing piano with adult musicians in a dance combo. Although she was class valedictorian, college was not considered an option.
Her first big adventure came during World War II when she drove with a girlfriend to San Diego and took a job in the office of an aircraft factory.
In 1944, she moved to Oakland, Calif., and fell in love with the Bay Area, though she continued her annual visits to friends and family in Montana until she was 90. She married Vern Gilstrap in 1947, and their two daughters Mary Gilstrap (Norman Davidson), and Virginia Gilstrap remained her lifelong precious friends. Always a musician, she and Vern performed marimba duets throughout the 1960s.
After their marriage ended, Helen continued working as a secretary with the Marin County Municipal Court until retirement, and created what she called “a wonderful life,” joining Toastmasters and PEO, volunteering as a tutor, delivering meals to the homeless, taking adult education classes at Sonoma State University, and traveling widely.
She readily deflected compliments, but was admired for her hard work and integrity. At age 67 she participated in a challenging day-long ropes course. She wrote her memoirs, joined a book club, and played in her church handbell choir and in The Rohnert Park Kitchen Kut-Ups, a senior citizen’s band.
Helen loved life, and instead of becoming fearful when given a serious cardiac diagnosis at age 88, she said, “Well, I’m going to live as long as I’m alive!” and though slowing down, she kept expanding her circle of friends and activities. She was beloved by her family and friends, and she continues to live in our hearts. She willed her body to UC San Francisco Medical Center. A Celebration of Life will be held on Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at St. John’s United Methodist Church, 5150 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA 94928. Contributions in Helen’s memory may be made to St. John’s UMC at that address.