Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Roberta Gillis, SCV Democratic Party Leader

• Émigré Remembered for Being 'Passionate About America'

By Josh Premako
Signal Staff Writer

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Roberta Gillis

L
ocal political activist Roberta Gillis died Friday morning in Tarzana from complications of a stroke she suffered March 20.
    Gillis, 69, had been hospitalized at Tarzana Health and Rehabilitation Center following the stroke.
    She is survived by her husband of more than 33 years, Ron Gillis, and a sister and several nephews and nieces in Croatia.
    An outspoken fixture in the political community, Roberta Gillis had a background far removed from the suburban comforts of Santa Clarita.
    Born Basylka Misch on March 20, 1937, in Yugoslavia, she lived under the Nazi regime in her childhood.
    Ron Gillis said his wife's nickname — which he used throughout their marriage — was Bossa, meaning "barefoot girl," because she could not afford shoes until she was a teenager.
    Before escaping to Germany, she was sentenced to hard labor in her homeland, for opposing communism.
    She was working as a waitress in Germany when the Central Intelligence Agency learned of her fight against communism and offered her political asylum in the United States.
    Prior to becoming a U.S. citizen in 1968 — when she took the name Roberta in honor of Robert F. Kennedy — she worked in the garment sweatshops of New York City and later as a maid.
    Ron Gillis remembered meeting his future bride in a nightclub and talking about boxing and politics.
    "She was an exceptionally beautiful woman," he said. "We hit it off right away, (and) it was beautiful."
    She also had run a successful wig shop in Hollywood, he said, working with celebrities including Ella Fitzgerald and Angie Dickinson.
    In addition to being a past president of the Democratic Club of Santa Clarita Valley, she was also instrumental in opening the first homeless shelter in the valley.
    "It was her passion," her husband said. "It was a great achievement and she was really proud."
    Bruce McFarland, president of the Democratic Alliance for Action, said "She was my confidant and compatriot on many Democratic and social causes. She will be missed."
    She was also a longtime contributor to The Signal's opinion pages.
    "It was impossible to meet Roberta and not want to be her friend," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. "In everything she did, (she) fought for what was right, just and true."
    Friends remembered her as a die-hard freedom lover, a sentiment echoed by at least one ideological adversary.
    "(She) was passionate about America and the democratic process (and) I always found Roberta to be a worthy adversary," Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon said in a statement. "Roberta Gillis' life is a bright reflection of the ideal of America."
    Similar thoughts were expressed by The Signal's General Manager Tim Whyte.
    "When I first met Roberta I thought to myself, 'There goes one of the great characters of life in the Santa Clarita Valley,'" he said. "When she died, I thought to myself, 'I've lost one of my greatest friends.'"
    Ron Gillis said she requested that no services be held for her, adding her ashes will be sprinkled in Croatia.
    Their last exchange, he said, "was I told her I loved her, and she said 'I love you, too.'"

    In lieu of flowers, it has been requested that donations be made to the Santa Clarita Valley Emergency Winter Shelter or the SCV Press Club's Randy Wicks Memorial Scholarship.


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