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On January 17th, 1947, Gretchen Ann Gelbke came into this world. On that same date 75 years later, just after the clock struck midnight and her birthday began, she peacefully went on to the next.
The last several years had presented Gretchen with countless medical issues, and rare complications to accompany them all, any one of which could have single handedly overtaken an ordinary person. But she wasn’t ordinary, she was extraordinary. She battled lymphoma with all her might, even in the last few weeks, defying the odds of her prognosis and dumbfounding her doctors and nurses with her strength and tenacity.
To her family, this was entirely unsurprising. Our matriarch has always been a pillar of strength, love, passion and determination from day one.
Born in Appleton, WI to Julius and Mildred Pennings, Gretchen spent her childhood in the Fox Valley, attending local Catholic schools by day and calling on her friends in Little Chute by night. She remained in the area into adulthood, working full-time in various leadership positions ranging from sales for Fabergé to managing Gimbels department store, even while parenting her young daughter, Stephanie. A pioneering mindset at the time, Gretchen was passionate about putting her knowledge and skills to use in a career – “having it all,” as they say.
Gretchen and David married in 1971, welcomed their son Erick in 1976, and raised their family in their beloved saltbox home hidden on a ravine in the middle of the city. Living amongst the woods was perfect for her; she loved all things nature, and had a way with animals and a very green thumb. In fact, once Gretchen and David retired to Heritage Lake in Egg Harbor, their cabin, and its wonderful landscaping, was the prized unit in the resort, even pictured on the Door County Monopoly board!
Gardening wasn’t her only talent, though. She was also an excellent artist and loved to paint, often gifting her creations to friends and family. While “retired,” she spent many years working at Hands On Art Studio, running kids’ camps and loving on the goats, horses, chickens and pigs.
Gretchen left us traces of herself everywhere. Painted rocks in her great grandkids’ dresser drawers, porch signs decorating all our porches, Santa figurines galore for our Christmas decorations, but most of all, a legacy of love. She loved her husband, kids, grandkids and great grandkids more than anything in the world. She loved her extended family and treated them as her own. She loved her friends…friends she made everywhere she went. She loved her life and we loved our lives with her.
Gretchen leaves behind her husband of more than 50 years, David, her daughter and son-in-law, Stephanie and Joe Colling, and her son, Erick Gelbke of Whitefish, Montana. She has three grandchildren who will miss her dearly, Chelsea Drusch, Dr. Reed Colling of New York City, and Mitchell Colling, all of Stephanie and Joe. Her great grandchildren, Chelsea and Greg Drusch’s sons Landon (Pandaman), Lincoln (Nugget), and Holden (Holdy Porkchop), were the absolute joys of her life. Her sisters Nancy Atkins of Las Vegas, Nevada and Christy Haller of Venice, Florida are mourning her absence, as well as her brother- and sister-in-law Carla and Tom Crabb of Madison, Wisconsin. Pat Dercks, her best friend since Kindergarten, and her husband Bill will miss her dearly as well.
Fortunately, Gretchen was greeted by her parents Julius & Mildred, her in-laws Carl & Evie, her brother Ken, and her brother-in-law Dick Haller, all who passed before her.
We know they’re thrilled to be reunited again.
Sarge, Mom, Nana, Gretchie – we love you so much. And in your honor, fuck cancer and go Pack go.
In lieu of services, there will be a celebration of life on a future date. Rather than flowers, please make a donation to Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, The Trevor Project or your local humane society.
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