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Marilyn Gehlbach was an Auburn leader in community, school and music

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Marilyn Gehlbach, an advocate for education and music in Auburn, who turned to raising Parkinson’s Disease awareness in her later years, has died at 76. Gehlbach’s accomplishments included being part of the founding circle of Auburn Symphony supporters, serving as a Placer Union High School District Board trustee for 15 years and originating the Library Garden Summer Series. “She loved Auburn,” her husband of 53 years, Dr. Charlie Gehlbach said. “But her No. 1 proudest achievement was her family – her kids and family. She had the capacity to handle everything and do it in style.” The Gehlbachs moved to Auburn in 1962. She died Nov. 13 at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital of pneumonia. The couple would raise four children – Lars, Garth, Suzanne and Clark – and Marilyn became involved in leadership roles in education. She expanded that to music, starting with her work in 1980 organizing the Placer High Music Boosters Club. A year later, she co-originated Auburn Music Day, which she led as chairwoman for 16 years. Under her leadership, Music Day transitioned into the long-standing Music on the Green event. The Library Garden Summer Series originated in 1988. At the same time, Gehlbach was working with a group of seven original board members to start the Auburn Symphony, serving as treasurer for eight years. Monroe De Jarnette, symphony founder and – like Gehlbach – a past McCann Award winner for outstanding community service to Auburn, described her as “the quintessential volunteer. “I never met anyone quite like Marilyn,” De Jarnette said. “She was very certain that she was on the right track when she got involved, always positive and always friendly. I think the symphony’s ultimate success was the result of a lot of people but Marilyn’s role was right there, at the top of the pyramid.” Charlie Gehlbach said his wife could best be described as having an intangible “inner fire.” “She was always so calm and gentle but if she got hold of a project, she didn’t push you, but she got it done,” Gehlbach said. That fire didn’t diminish even after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease 21 years ago. Gehlbach continued her work with the symphony, the school board and other local community organizations until she had to step away from many activities because of the disease. Parkinson’s Disease has no cure and Gehlbach became an activist while trying a new treatment – deep brain stimulation through surgery – that reduces shaking symptoms by using mild electrical stimulation to block brain signals. She became the 38th patient in a research group led by Dr. Philip Starr of the University of California, San Francisco. After finding the operation provided relief, she became an advocate to others on a procedure that Charlie Gehlbach says has now treated more than 1,000 Parkinson’s Disease patients. In 2004, Gehlbach traveled to New York with a group from the Parkinson Association of Northern California, meeting fellow Parkinson’s patient and actor Michael J. Fox, while visiting the offices of the association he had founded. Ken Horst, co-facilitator of the Auburn Parkinson’s Support Group that Gehlbach served as treasurer for, said she continued with the group until she was physically unable to take part about a year ago. “She was determined in the pursuit of a cure for the disease but she was also a very caring person,” Horst said. A celebration of life service will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Pioneer United Methodist Church in Auburn with a reception from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at The Ridge Golf Club. Memorial donations may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease, Church Street Station, P.O. Box 780, New York, NY, 10008.