RANCHO SANTA FE — When Dr. Kenneth Gerber bought his house in Rancho Santa Fe, it had a single palm in the backyard and for him, it was almost a dream come true.
“For a guy who grew up in New Jersey to have a palm tree in his backyard … He became intensely interested in palm trees,” Dr. Jeffery Rotham said.
Gerber began studying them and then propagating them until he had about 200 of them, some very rare.
“He knew as much about palm trees as anyone in the world,” he said. “You could literally spend two hours walking around his backyard. He could tell you their botanical names, where they came from and everything about them. He was a nut, but in an endearing way. People were drawn to him because of his brilliant mind.”
Gerber was found dead outside his home in the 4600 block of Sun Valley Road at about 11 a.m. Aug. 17.
Sheriff’s officials are calling his death a homicide because of the “totality of his injuries.”
Rotham, who has a gastroenterology practice in Oceanside, was out of town on vacation when he heard the news of Gerber’s death and first thought health issues were the cause.
“I was shocked, but I wasn’t totally surprised. He had medical issues over the years. He had hip replacements and some kind of autoimmune disease for which he was taking medication,” he said.
But murder? Rotham can’t imagine who would want to kill Gerber or why.
Those questions go unanswered although the investigation continues, said sheriff’s homicide Lt. Glenn Giannantonio, who declined to talk about the case or its progress.
Giannantonio said the next news release will come from the Sheriff’s Department when and if there is an arrest.
Rotham knew Gerber since high school. Gerber went to MIT where he got a degree in electrical engineering and was a champion gymnast. They both went to medical school in 1971 at Georgetown, where Gerber was an honor student. The two remained close friends until the past five years, when his friend seemed to begin drifting away.
“He became so involved in his projects that he would sacrifice his personal life and relationships,” Rotham said.
He said he and others who knew him suspected he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, and as he grew older the disorder worsened. Gerber would have turned 63 soon, Rotham said.
Gerber had the kind of mind that others envied, Rotham said.
In medical school, while everyone else had to study hard, it all came easy to him.
“He double boarded in nuclear medicine and radiology. He was a star student and a smart guy,” he said.
“You could have a conversation with him and he would ask a million questions. He wanted to know everything about everything,” he said.
His first job as a doctor was with public health, which helped him pay for his education costs.
Rotham said he and Gerber shared in interest in old cars.
“Only then they weren’t old,” he joked.
Gerber married his high school sweetheart Vivian just after medical school. The marriage failed after about six years, but the couple had a daughter who is now a rabbi in New Orleans, La.
“Maybe it was because of the Ferraris,” Rotham joked.
Gerber was a Ferrari fanatic.
“At one time he had several,” Rotham said.
“Our senior year, he bought his first Ferrari. He paid $3,500 for it He washed it and polished it. He was enthralled with it. It was his baby,” he said.
Gerber became friends with Dick Merritt, who had written several books about Ferraris.
“They used to sit around and drink wine or brandy and talk about the old days of Ferraris,” Rotham said.
When Gerber bought his house, it was a standard 1,800-square-foot bungalow, but he had been transforming it over the years. Some of the work that was finished Rotham described as “magnificent,” but there was still lumber stacked in the driveway that had been there for years, Rotham said.
Gerber had an office on Lomas Santa Fe and was working independently.
“It’s hard these days to be an independent radiologist,” Rotham said.
Like many others, he had fallen on hard financial times the past few years, but he was a good man, Rotham said.
He had declared bankruptcy and the bank was foreclosing on his home. He had lost one in Solana Beach a few years ago.
“His life was in pieces. His life had become fragmented,” Rotham said. “His life just seemed to unwind the past couple of years.”