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Auburn’s colorful Gilbert dies at 82

Bike-riding octagenarian was a fixture in Old Town, Downtown
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Gilbert Ortega – Auburn’s beloved, bicycling “man about town” – has died at age 82. Ortega – simply “Gilbert” to the many who knew, or knew of, the colorfully garbed local – passed away Friday after several weeks of dwindling health. For the past decade, Ortega, his shiny bicycle and the sound of his bulbous bike horn gave Auburn a daily reason to smile as he made his rounds to businesses in both Downtown and Old Town. “They loved him because he had a zest for life,” said his son, Don Ortega. “He enjoyed every day and often said that he didn’t want to be among the older folks sitting in a chair watching TV.” Ortega’s eccentric garb changed from week to week, but usually included a variety of military and airplane-related pins and costume jewelry – much of it contributed by the friends he had made in a lifetime of living in the Newcastle-Auburn area. They’d set off a military-style jacket and cap, adorned on occasion with a raccoon tail. Pinwheels, streamers and other shiny accoutrements would adorn his always-shiny bike. “He liked a little of everything,” his son said, attempting to explain Ortega’s quirky sense of fashion. “Whenever anyone gave him something – to be part of him – he would make it part of his jacket.” Anna Chiaratti, who Ortega visited at Norris Electric on Lincoln Way, helped Gilbert find federally assisted seniors’ housing and transportation to a growing number of medical appointments late in his life. As a teen, she had remembered Ortega as a hard worker at the Newcastle fruit packing sheds. He would continue to work at manual labor jobs throughout much of his life. Chiaratti bumped into Ortega around 2001, three years after his wife, Lupe had died. He was living at the Elmwood Motel in Downtown Auburn and – with his rent taking all of his Social Security check – living off baked goods the old Hilda’s Bakery donated to him, she said. With Meals on Wheels delivering meals and a new home at less rent, Ortega became a “man about town” with some spending money in his pocket, a smile for everyone and a will to ride his well-appointed bicycle into his 80s – including regular trips all the way to Newcastle. “And when he finished his rides, he always polished his bicycle to the hilt,” Chiaratti said. Don Ortega said his father left school early to support his family. Chiaratti said Gilbert rode because he never was able to pass a driver’s test. The years of riding weren’t kind to Ortega. He suffered numerous crashes both on his own and into vehicles. In 2008, Ortega underwent heart bypass surgery. Despite Ortega’s doctor’s orders to slow down, Gilbert didn’t and he was soon riding through town to the accompaniment of his horn. “A lot of people told me they always knew Gilbert was around because of his horn,” Don Ortega said. “It was part of him – honking that horn.” Ortega’s regular schedule would include breakfast in Old Town and a visit with Linda Robinson of Sun River Clothing. Robinson said she’ll always remember the many times the two would kid around – but also the great, long talks they would have about times past during his more lucid moments. “He had many,” Robinson said. “He always came around to talk to me. He had just become part of our lives and people became connected to the community because of Gilbert.” Don Ortega said that arrangements have yet to be made. Robinson said Ortega’s friends would like to hold a celebration of Ortega’s life. “He was a character – and the community was fortunate to have him for awhile,” Robinson said.