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Remembering a lost loved one this holiday season

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Kevin Gilbertson, who died in an October car crash, enjoys time with his son Maddox.

The roadside memorial just keeps growing.

And each time a soccer ball or a bouquet of flowers is added to the shrine created on Rosemont Road to honor Kevin Gilbertson, his wife Jennifer can't help but remark at the reach her husband had in their community.

The soccer coach, husband and father of four who lived in West Linn died more than two months ago in a car crash on Rosemont. But still, the memorial grows.

'Every time I go by there, there is something new,' Jennifer Gilbertson said. 'Those things are from people in the community who wanted to show respect. He was such a great guy. He was always the guy to lend a helping hand and find the good in any situation or anybody.'

That memory of a man - whose life touched so many people that there were 425 in attendance at his memorial service - is something that has come in handy for the Gilbertson family this holiday season. It's also the memory that has made this time of year so hard.

'It's a tough time of year to experience a loss,' Jennifer said. 'He was very intense and very vivacious and exuberant. He wasn't the type of person you forget.'

Gilbertson's death is one that left a wake throughout West Linn. He left behind four children, daughters Jordan, Alexa and Avery and son Maddox. The oldest, Jordan, is a senior at West Linn High School and member of the varsity soccer team.

It's the soccer field where Gilbertson may be remembered most, as a youth coach for many years throughout the Portland area.

'There were a group of kids who played with Kevin for a few years and really learned the game from him,' said David Busch, whose daughter Erica is also a senior soccer player at West Linn High School. 'We were really appreciative of that.'

Jennifer said Gilbertson started coaching on a classic/premier boys team in Portland in 1981. And over the years he was involved in everything from recreational to high-level soccer. Over the summer, Gilbertson coached Jordan on the high school varsity team while the school was in between full-time coaches.

'He was always so excited about everything and always up,' family friend Kristin Bushnell said. 'When you lose somebody like that, it's such a void because of the way he was.'

But soccer was seemingly just one way Gilbertson could influence youths in a positive way. Jennifer said he loved being a dad and would use any excuse to be around his kids.

'He often went to Stafford (Grade School) at lunch and recess to eat with his daughter, Jordan, and play kickball with her and all her friends at recess,' Jennifer said.

Jennifer, who married Gilbertson in 2002, said his big heart reached beyond friends and family, too. He frequently donated time to charity organizations. He also was a hotline member for Alcoholics Anonymous for people who were struggling with their rehab. His phone would ring at all hours of the night, having been made available to anyone who needed an encouraging word.

'I've just never seen anyone like him; he's just so positive,' Bushnell said. 'He was just so involved. He was such a hands-on dad.'

What has also made this loss especially hard for the Gilbertson family is the mystery surrounding his death.

Police say he was killed when his car hit a tree on Rosemont Road. But there's no way to know, investigators said, why Gilbertson swerved off the roadway while he was en route home from a soccer match.

Two toxicology reports, one by the state medical examiner and another by a private firm, showed no trace of alcohol or drugs. One report of the involvement of alcohol was erroneous.

Investigators with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office say it could have been a number of things, swerving to miss an animal or another car perhaps. The most likely scenario, Jennifer believes, is that Gilbertson had a heart attack while behind the wheel.

'He had to pull over and let me drive just a few days earlier because he had such a terrible chest pain,' Jennifer said.

She said that the investigators told her a heart attack could have made his body tense and foot hit the gas pedal. Crash investigators said the car's speedometer was pegged on 90 miles per hour after the collision.

'Kevin would have never driven that fast,' Jennifer said.

Meanwhile, Jennifer said the family continues to come to terms with their loss. But she said there has been tremendous support from the community.

'Yesterday, I was at Safeway and someone came up to me who knew Kevin and offered to buy my groceries,' Jennifer said. 'That happens all the time. It feels good to know that he was well loved and missed. … I've never met anyone like Kevin before, and I probably never will again. He was very unique.'

Jennifer said the family's large support system has been their savior. They spent Christmas with Jennifer's and Gilbertson's relatives, both of whom live in the area.

'We're struggling,' Jennifer said. 'It's been really, really hard. It's heartbreaking.'

A memorial fund called Kevin's Kids has been established. To donate, visit any Washington Mutual branch.