“A remarkable woman.”
“Ahead of her time.”
“Strong and independent.”
Those are some of the ways Amherst history maven Valerie Gerstenberger was described by the people who knew her.
“She knew what she wanted, and she knew how she was going to get it,” said David Cotton, who worked side by side with her for years on Steele High School and Workshop Players drama productions. “She was a mentor to many of us. We were her children.”
Gerstenberger died on Christmas Day at age 104.
Who was she? Possibly the foremost expert on local history, especially the families that shaped Amherst.
A 1931 graduate of Central High School, she went on to collect degrees in theater and library science from Baldwin Wallace, Kent State, Western Reserve University, Ohio State, and the University of Iowa.
Returning to Lorain County, she taught English, speech, and drama at Clearview High in the 1940s and 1950s, then spent 23 years as the library coordinator for the Amherst school system and drama director for six years.
She served on the Amherst board of education, directed historical pageants, chaired a committee to save Central School, was an Amherst Public Library board member for nearly a quarter century, led the Amherst Teachers Association, and was a charter member of the Amherst Historical Society.
A lifelong devotee of the stage, she was well-known as a costume designer. She directed summer drama programs for kids at the Lorain YMCA, Barnstormers, and Children’s Stage Players.
At the behest of her Clearview students, Gerstenberger launched the Workshop Players in the
She also founded the Workshop Players in 1947. The troupe produced shows at the old Hickory Tree Grange Hall on Milan Avenue until 1953, when the school system allowed the use of the theater-in-the-round on Middle Ridge Road in Amherst Township, where plays are presented to this day.
“Valerie was incredibly involved out there for 50 years,” said Cotton. Of the 180-some shows in the theater’s first 50 years, Gerstenberger was involved in nearly all in some fashion, he remembers.
“I learned so much from her. So many of us have said that. The common theme is we were lucky to learn from her, to work for her, to know her. Tough lady, but if you met her standards you known you’d done a good job,” he said.
That tough-as-nails demeanor was echoed by several who knew Gerstenberger.
Joan Rosenbusch of the Amherst Historical Society remembers being taught in eighth grade by Gerstenberger’s mother, Ethel Eppley. “Her mother was very strict, demanding, but in a way that you didn’t dislike her. She got what she wanted — I’m sure that Valerie got that from her mother. They were the old apple and the tree,” she said.
Rosenbusch worked with Gerstenberger at the Steele High School library. She remembers the historian’s sharp mind, attention to detail, and drive to catalog and categorize every scrap of information.
“She was a saver who wanted to collect and make available information on Amherst. Because she had many years of library experience, she knew how things had to be done. She documented,” she said.
After years working with the historical society she helped create, Gerstenberger departed the group to form the Amherst Heritage House. Cotton, who remains involved in the private preservation project, said the items she collected over the years, including many costumes from stage plays, remain intact.
Matthew Nahorn, a local historian and newly-elected Amherst city councilman, was briefly involved with the Heritage House in the early 2000s.
While he did not spend much time with Gerstenberger, he said her legacy is clear.
“She was quite the lady of local background, local history, local education. So many people interacted with her through school or theater, and a lot of people have such fond memories of her,” he said. “She had a love of the community and (it was her) will to contribute by preserving its history.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.