Longtime mayor credited with maintaining city’s fishing-village ambience.
Gretchen Wilbert was born into an established Tacoma political family.
The former Gig Harbor mayor became one of the defining personalities of the town, where she lived for more than 60 years. She taught kindergarten in her first career, served as elected mayor for 16 years and led groups such as the Gig Harbor Lions Club well into her retirement.
Mayor Wilbert, who held that post from 1989 to 2005, helped transform a sleepy Croatian fishing village into a suburban city that retained its charm. Surrounded by her family, she died Sunday at 87.
How Gig Harbor looks in 2015 can be attributed in large part to Mayor Wilbert’s leadership, said Mark Hoppen, former City Council member and city administrator under Mayor Wilbert.
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When she was elected mayor, there were no sidewalks, few places to shop and only one park, Hoppen said. In her tenure, the city’s open space grew to 17 parks, pedestrian connections were improved, and the north and south ends of the city were anchored with shopping centers.
“To a large extent, the way Gig Harbor looks or functions and the amenities it has a lot to do with (her) vision,” Hoppen said. “She was always concerned about improving the quality of life and the residential character of Gig Harbor.”
With growth comes growing pains, and Mayor Wilbert wasn’t immune to adversity while in office.
Shortly after becoming mayor, she forced the city administrator to resign, prompting the City Council to look at restructuring the elected position. In 1991, the council asked voters to decide whether to reduce the mayor’s powers and switch to a council-manager system, which would have left Mayor Wilbert a figurehead.
Voters stuck with the status quo.
“She was a very strong woman,” said current City Administrator Ron Williams, whose previous work as mayor of University Place coincided with part of Mrs. Wilber’s tenure as mayor. “She knew what she wanted; she was a strong advocate for Gig Harbor.”
Mayor Wilbert was the fourth member of her immediate family to hold public office.
Her father, Thomas A. Swayze, was elected comptroller for the city of Tacoma in the 1930s. Her mother, Frances Swayze, was a 26th District state representative from 1952 to 1965. Her brother, Thomas A. Swayze Jr., was a Pierce County Superior Court judge and was appointed to fill his mother’s position in Olympia.
Mayor Wilbert’s dedication to Gig Harbor continued after she decided not to seek a fifth term.
Some of her projects were successful, including her advocacy for a trolley service, while others were not.
Mayor Wilbert pushed to have an ice-skating rink and hoped to see it covered by the stained-glass dome of Tacoma’s historic First United Methodist Church, which had been demolished in 2006.
She had helped save the dome, which was put in storage. The ice rink idea was never completed.
Another failed project Mayor Wilbert championed was to make “Under a Gig Harbor Moon” the official song of the city. She would hand out CDs with the song, said Police Chief Kelly Busey.
“She was a very kind lady who genuinely loved Gig Harbor,” said Busey, who was a police officer during half of Mrs. Wilbert’s time as mayor.
Pausing to recognize the former mayor on Monday, Mayor Jill Guernsey reflected on her influence in the Harbor.
“She was a very special person. She taught us all to be better,” Guernsey said.
For many Gig Harbor families, Mayor Wilbert is perhaps best known for her work as a teacher.
She was instrumental in getting a kindergarten program established in the Peninsula School District, said Carol McGinness, who taught kindergarten alongside the former mayor at Artondale Elementary.
“She was such a master teacher,” McGinness said. “She touched so many lives.”
Mayor Wilbert is survived by her three children and four grandchildren. Her husband of 47 years, Bill Wilbert, died in 1998.