By Tim Whyte
I had coffee with one of my biggest critics the other day, and it reminded me of a time long ago when one of my biggest critics was also one of my best friends, before the politics of personal destruction gained a powerful accomplice called social media.
Roberta Gillis was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat, in an era when this valley was bright red, long before the political shift that has the Democratic Party thinking of Santa Clarita as a purple corner of a historically Republican-dominated congressional district that is ripe for the flipping.
Roberta was always in the minority here in Santa Clarita, yet she fought the best version of her good fight without fear, and always with class.
She was a larger-than-life character. Her life is the stuff of a movie script.
Born Basylka Misch in Yugoslavia — now Croatia — in 1937, she lived under the Nazi regime as a child, couldn’t afford shoes until she was 16, and as a young woman became known for her fight against communism in her homeland and, later, Germany.
Offered political asylum by the CIA, she immigrated to the U.S. and by 1968 became a proud naturalized citizen. She took the Americanized name Roberta, a tribute to someone she greatly respected: Robert F. Kennedy.
Once in the States, she worked menial jobs, as a maid and as a worker in New York City’s garment sweatshops. She later ran a wig shop in Hollywood, where she served a celebrity clientele.
In her later years, Roberta made her home in Santa Clarita, where she and her husband, Ron Gillis, were active in the Democratic Party and Ron served as a member of the College of the Canyons board of trustees. Drawing on her childhood, she was a passionate advocate for those less fortunate, especially the homeless.
She and Ron had met years earlier in a nightclub, and the two were smitten. “She was an exceptionally beautiful woman,” Ron told The Signal in her 2006 obituary as he recounted their first meeting.
Roberta was only 69 when she died, and I count myself as fortunate to have known her and to call her a friend.
It didn’t start out that way. In our first encounter on the phone, she read me the riot act over something I had written. It was the first time, but far from the last. She was one of The Signal’s biggest critics — and mine, too — but then as now, we believed the newspaper’s opinion pages should provide a platform for a diverse array of viewpoints, so we offered Roberta a regular slot as a columnist.
Her columns and her views were not universally popular with our readers — the local population tilted more to the right then than it does now. She was controversial. On the up side, we got a lot of letters to the editor about Roberta’s columns. She kept the conversation lively and I never ran out of copy for the opinion page.
After a while she invited me to lunch, so we could get to know each other — and, I would soon learn, so she could try to apply her powers of persuasion on me in an effort to shift the paper’s editorials and my columns toward the left.
That lunch prompted a second one. And then another. Soon, it was a regular meeting, about once a month, over Reuben sandwiches at Salt Creek Grille. She would start off by asking about my family, and she seemed to enjoy hearing about my latest adventures with my wife and our kids — then she’d lay into me over something I’d written, and the verbal jousting would begin.
Ever the European, she dressed impeccably. The girl who had no shoes as a child wore hats with aplomb, the shoes always matched the outfit, and she would greet you with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, whether you were comfortable being kissed or not.
Walking back into the newsroom, someone would spot the bright red lipstick on one cheek and say, “Lunch with Roberta, I see.”
Her critiques of the newspaper were delivered in that thick Croatian accent, which sounded like the accent you’d expect of a Transylvanian countess. It was like Dracula meets Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Among my favorites was her critique of one of our election endorsements. The newspaper had endorsed two candidates who Roberta viewed with particular disdain — I won’t name them here, but one had been involved in a dispute years earlier that escalated to gunplay, and the other had been accused of a white collar crime (but, if memory serves, wasn’t convicted).
“I cannot believe you did such a thing,” she scolded me. “You endorsed a SHOOTER and a THIEF!”
One of them — I won’t say whether it was the shooter or the thief — would later become a friend of Roberta’s. Funny thing. That happened a lot.
She was the ultimate loyal Democrat. She once told me Antonio Villaraigosa was an up-and-comer who would someday be governor. I joked that if that happened I’d move out of state.
She also recounted the time she met Bill Clinton and was struck by how charismatic he was in person. She said it was no wonder so many women were willing to have his boots under their beds. Roberta had a frisky side.
She was in all her glory when the 2000 Democratic National Convention came to Staples Center in Los Angeles. She was a delegate, and she got me a floor pass. There I was, an interloper in party politics, who, as a journalist, probably shouldn’t have accepted that gift, but was nevertheless excited by the opportunity to witness that moment in history up close, and personally. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
So here I am, with another historic election a week away, and I’ve been thinking of Roberta. I wonder what she’d make of today’s discourse. What would she think of social media and the relentless version of attack politics that it has fomented? What would she think of those, on the left and on the right, who aren’t satisfied to disagree with each other, but feel the need to tear their opponents down, who engage in politics on social media as if it’s virtual warfare? Or those who even, as our nation saw this week, are emboldened to escalate the discord to actual attempts at politically motivated violence?
What would she think of those who would never dream of agreeing to disagree over a Reuben sandwich?
My first tour of duty with The Signal saw the beginning of this shift. I started in 1989, when the public didn’t even know such a thing as the internet would exist. By the time I left in 2007, we had a busy website and social media was in its early infancy. When I returned in June this year, social media had evolved, like an alien creature from a sci-fi thriller. And it was here to eat us alive.
Roberta Gillis didn’t see that transition. When she died in 2006, a celebration of life event was held in her memory, and it was telling that a significant percentage of the people who showed up to pay their respects were Republicans — including some of her biggest adversaries.
The mutual respect was sincere. So were the disagreements on the issues.
She was, admittedly, a unique character, even for that somewhat less jaded time. She was a good friend and a worthy foe, all at once. She knew how to engage in conversation and debate, defend her positions, and attack the positions of her opponents, without degrading them personally, all while disarming them with her charm.
As the Nov. 6 election approaches, I can’t help wishing she was here — not only because I miss her, but also because she’d set us all straight, tell us what idiots we are, and then kiss us on the cheek.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.