Gisela Zastrow in her Ocracoke garden. Photo courtesy of Katja Zastrow.
Gisela Zastrow in her Ocracoke garden. Photo courtesy of Katja Zastrow.

By Connie Leinbach

Islander  Gisela Agnes Zastrow, 76, died Saturday, Aug. 1, in the Outer Banks Hospital in Nags Head. 

Born in Ruhland, Germany, in 1939, she grew up in post WWII Berlin, Germany.

Her family’s love of reading helped them survive the difficult years.

“Books took me out of all the horrors we saw around us,” she said. “In my home reading was like eating.”

In 1970, Gisela moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and two daughters.

She and her family started coming annually to Ocracoke beginning in the early 1970s.  The family purchased a home on the island in the early 1980s, and Gisela became a permanent Ocracoke resident in 2000.  

“She loved living on Ocracoke and loved her house and her garden,” said islander Frances Miller.

The family discovered Ocracoke after Gisela researched seaside vacation venues other than Florida.

“She’d gotten some brochures of the island and we rented the house that is now Kathleen O’Neal’s Island Artworks,” said her daughter Katja. “It had no phone or TV, and she loved that.”

Gisela was a member of the Ladies Lunch group that meets Saturdays in various island restaurants.

A chemist by training, Gisela found her great passion to be teaching reading to inner city youths in St. Louis after the family had moved there.

“She worked in a brewing chemistry lab in Germany, but she was really interested in social service,” Katja said.

In St. Louis, Gisela started as a volunteer in her children’s school, but in 1978 began work with the local chapter of Reading Is Fundamental.

Despite the misgivings of some about the worth of the endeavor, Gisela created a RIF program for the youth in the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center. The program became immensely successful and nationally recognized.  “They absolutely loved her,” Katja said. “She built up a whole program,” touching the lives of thousands of at risk youth. In 2000, she received the Anne Richardson Volunteer of the Year award from Reading is Fundamental (RIF). 

She battled severe migranes and other health issues her entire life. A recovering alcoholic with over 20 years of sobriety, she was passionate and dedicated to helping and mentoring others in their path to wellness.

Gisela had a lifelong passion for books, teaching, nature, reading, gardening, art, history, music, cultures and foreign lands such as Turkey and Egypt. 

A photo of Gisela at the Berlin Wall in the 1980s depicts her spirit and conviction.

Gisela at the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of Katja Zastrow.
Gisela at the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of Katja Zastrow.

“As soon as she heard that the Berlin wall was coming down, she flew there to take a hammer to the wall,” Katja said.

Islander Dave Tolson, who knew Gisela since the 1970s, helped her when she needed small things done around her house and who checked on her frequently since she lived alone on the island.

“She was pretty strong-willed, and she told it like it was.” Tolson said. “She was a character.”

Gisela is survived by her daughter Bettina Zastrow and her husband Lance McGinnis, and their three children Karl, Wilhelm and Klaus, all of Nyack, NY; Katja Zastrow and her husband Christian Teelucksingh of Washington, DC; and her former husband, Dr. Klaus Zastrow.

A memorial celebration will be planned here for later in the fall.

Click here for the link to a story on Gisela’s RIF work published in 2000 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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  1. A beautiful, accomplished, and passionate woman…and a wonderful friend. How you will be missed, Gisele!

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