There were signs early on that Gayle B. Uilkema might be destined for a life in public service.
"Ever since the third grade, I was involved in some kind of student government," said the four-term Contra Costa County supervisor. "I always realized that was the most important level, at the ground level."
Friday night , Uilkema will be feted as Lafayette's Citizen of the Year for her more than three decades in elected office, which include 16 years on the board of supervisors and 19 years on the Lafayette City Council.
"I consider this an enormous honor," she said.
Uilkema, who is battling cancer, is still recovering from a bout with pneumonia. The longtime advocate for seniors and children, who has said she will step down when her term ends next year, only recently was well enough to return to the supervisors' dais in Martinez, but has been working a lot from home.
"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."
Former Councilman Tom Cleveland has come to expect nothing but tenacity from his longtime friend. What he said he admires most is "her sense of quality, not just doing the minimum."
The two met in the 1960s at the University of Michigan, where Cleveland was on the student council and Uilkema advised and supported him. When they were on the Lafayette council together years later, she backed him up during his term as mayor in a confrontation with the school district over a community center.
"She was an ally in a tough fight," he said.
Originally from Detroit, Uilkema was a vocational education major at the University of Michigan before starting a family and eventually moving to the Bay Area and settling in Lafayette, where she quickly grew concerned over the lack of recreation classes for her two young daughters. She remembers city officials telling her there were no programs because "everyone has a big backyard."
She said to herself, "Wait a minute, kids need that socialization and parents need it to." Even though many parents left Lafayette during the day to work, "doesn't mean there shouldn't be activities for people who remain in Lafayette during the day," she said.
She was appointed to the recreation commission, which began planning new programs, and was named chair after four months. She brought a new perspective to local government.
"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."
She continued, "I was always looking for what is my life's goal. Maybe mine is to make social change."
She won a seat on the City Council in 1978, and over the course of five terms, worked on park protection, the community center project, transportation expansion, public safety and development planning. She served as mayor four times.
"I feel Lafayette has matured in a way that is in keeping with the scope of a semirural notion we have had all these years, and I don't think that part has changed so much," she said.
In 1996, she was elected to the first of four terms on the board of supervisors representing District 2, which now includes Lafayette, Moraga and several other cities, as well as the Rossmoor area. She was a driving force behind the Veterans Memorial Building and Lafayette Library and Learning Center, and is proud of her years as a lector at Moraga's St. Monica's Catholic Church and, more recently at Lafayette's St. Perpetua Catholic Community.
Lafayette resident Eliot Hudson wrote a letter to the Chamber of Commerce in support of Uilkema's nomination to be Citizen of the Year. He noted her intervention in the effort to preserve Acalanes Ridge open space.
"There were many people without whom, each playing crucial roles and pivotal times, Acalanes Ridge would not have been saved," Hudson wrote. "Supervisor Uilkema is one of them."
Uilkema, who has taught graduate courses at Cal State East Bay and UC Berkeley, has long been an ardent supporter of infrastructure improvements and environmental stewardship. She served 15 years on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board, is a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission.
The grandmother of three said she never expected to serve in local office this long, but she just couldn't give it up.
"Even to this day, I have been asked, 'Would I run for state Assembly and other offices,' " she said. "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."