Former Kelso Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich, who guided passage of a historic school bond that will rebuild district elementary schools and who helped the district recover from a 2014 teachers strike, died Saturday morning after a short battle with cancer. He was 65.
“He was a true gentleman. We always called him ‘Zen Glenn’ because he was always so calm,” district spokeswoman Beth Grambo said Monday morning. “He was a great storyteller, and his stories always had a connection to some issue the district was dealing with at the time.”
Gelbrich retired this past summer after four years as Kelso superintendent. He and his wife moved to Paso Robles, a California olive and grape-growing area between San Francisco and Los Angeles. They had completed a car tour of Oregon and California. After he came home not feeling well, he was diagnosed with cancer on Nov. 5, Grambo said.
He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, Calif.
“Our school community mourns his loss. ... We are appreciative for his service to Kelso, his leadership within our community and for his friendship with all,” said Don Iverson, director of student services in Kelso. “I am grateful for every moment I spent with him and will always hold Glenn in the highest regard.”
Gelbrich started his career in public education as a teacher in Philomath, Ore., in 1978. He became a school administrator nine years later and worked in Oregon until accepting a position as superintendent in Juneau, Alaska, in 2009.
Gelbrich was hired as Kelso’s superintendent in 2014. He presided over an eight-day teacher strike the following year.
“I think a lot of superintendents would have left after that, but he didn’t want to leave on those terms,” said Bob Lucas, who was the Kelso School Board president during the strike. “He built up a consensus of the groups involved and worked with them carefully, and now we pretty much have labor harmony thanks to his leadership.”
Lucas said Gelbrich’s strength as a leader came from his willingness to “listen and build consensus, then move (forward) from that.”
“He had a unique combination of experience and relationship-building, where he genuinely listened to the people that were in the district, valued their opinion and trusted them to do their jobs,” Lucas said.
Under Gelbrich’s leadership, the district convinced voters in February to pass a $98.6 million bond to replace Wallace and Beacon Hill elementary schools and construct a brand-new school on a 10-acre parcel of land in Lexington. (The district now is considering closing Beacon Hill and making a larger school in Lexington). The bond, which by far is the largest in district history, also will pay for upgrades to district athletic facilities and already has paid for artificial turf at Schroeder Field.“Glenn and I worked hand-in-hand with that (bond) program, and we relied on each other to move that initiative forward,” said Scott Westlund, district finance director. “Glenn really provided the leadership and encouragement to me to set a direction for what we needed to do.”
Westlund said Gelbrich allowed members of his staff to use their talents to their fullest, serving as a “cheerleader” rather than a micromanager.
“He had a lot of confidence in our abilities to do our work, but was always there to provide encouragement, support and guidance when it was necessary,” Westlund said.
Gelbrich enjoyed visiting classrooms and interacting with students, said Bob Gustin, president for the Kelso teachers’ union. Gustin said Gelbrich’s passion for education really showed when he “enthusiastically took the opportunity” to work with Gustin’s speech class.
“The students were fully engaged and genuinely enjoyed their time with a gifted lifelong learner (and) teacher,” Gustin said.
As superintendent, Gelbrich also helped Kelso prepare for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives districts more local control over how schools test and track student progress. The law replaces the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act
Gelbrich also worked with the Kelso High School principal to launch AVID, a national program that provides schools with research-based learning strategies. He also “shepherded” the 100 percent graduation goal, said Westlund.
“Glenn really helped spearhead that work with the principal, and I think those are going to have lasting impacts on our school district,” Westlund said.
Gelbrich’s Kelso colleagues remember him as a man of integrity and compassion, and Westlund said Gelbrich genuinely cared for his staff.
“He was more worried about making sure we were taken care of than probably taking care of himself,” Westlund said. “He put people around him at the forefront of his life, both personally and professionally, and that’s what made him such a great man.”
City Editor Andre Stepankowsky contributed to this report.