When Lance Gibbon thinks about Gary Wallin, he remembers a man with an enormous heart.
“I worked with Gary in a lot of different ways,” said Gibbon, superintendent of Oak Harbor Public Schools.
“He always gave generously of his time and attention to anyone and everyone who wanted to talk or needed support.”
Gibbon and many others in the Oak Harbor community were stunned and saddened by the news of Wallin’s unexpected death Tuesday.
Wallin, who was 68, was ever-present in the community. He consoled families during their most trying times for more than 50 years as a funeral service provider on Whidbey Island and celebrated student triumphs as a longtime school board member for Oak Harbor schools.
Wallin, with his wife, Martha, owned and operated Wallin Funeral Home &Cremation.
He also was devoted to community service, from his active participation with Kiwanis Club of Oak Harbor to his role of president of the Oak Harbor Main Street Association.
“I’m still in shock,” Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns said Wednesday, adding Wallin helped his family get through the losses of two loved ones in recent years.
“He’s just as consistent and as solid as a person that you could ever know.”
“He was just so incredibly involved in the community,” said Christine Cribb, executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
The Wallin family is hosting an open house in Gary’s honor from 1-5 p.m. Sunday at Wallin Funeral Home, located at 1811 NE 16th Ave., in Oak Harbor.
A funeral mass in Wallin’s honor will be 10 a.m. Monday at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, 85 N. Oak Harbor St.
The mass and open house are both open to the public.
“It is a heartbreaking loss for all of us,” Gibbon said.
“Gary and Martha are two of the nicest people I’ve ever known. They just have incredible love for kids and our community,” Gibbon said. “Gary has been an amazing model of servant leadership in our community for many years.”
Wallin volunteered with Oak Harbor schools for nearly 40 years, including 15 years on the school board before stepping down in June.
When he started on the school board, Oak Harbor schools were in disrepair and struggled to pass levies and bonds, Gibbon said, adding that all that changed during Wallin’s time on the board in which he also served as president.
Wallin was particularly passionate about helping the most needy students in the district, Gibbon said.
“I remember Gary always asking questions in board meetings, making sure we take care of the kids who need our help the most,” Gibbon said. “He was such a staunch advocate for those who could not advocate for themselves.”
And Wallin was known as a jokester.
At times, he would hand out a business card to someone he knew who was under the weather or he might see smoking a cigarette.
“I think you’re going to need this,” he would say.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Cribb said.
A 1967 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, Wallin knew a lot of people.
He had an uncanny ability to remember the finest details about people he met over the decades, according to James Bailey, who has known Wallin since they were children growing up in Oak Harbor.
Bailey, now a funeral service assistant at Wallin Funeral Home, wrote a narrative that he’s provided for Pastor David Lura to share. Bailey said he’d never get through it himself.
“Gary is one of those unique people who dealt with death pretty much every second of his life,” Bailey wrote. “He was the one who showed up when someone lost a loved one. He not only showed up, but he knew exactly what to do and he did it lovingly.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of dear folks … who are thankful to Gary for being there when they were confronted with the death of a spouse, child, friend or neighbor. He showed up and he knew what to do.
“Gary wasn’t afraid of death … I think it’s because he really loved life.”