By Jerelyn Craden
Ron Gambell, highly charismatic entrepreneur and community leader, passed away on Sunday, March 6 at his home in Minden Hills.
Born with the gift of gab and an aptitude for inspiring others, he excelled as Master Grand Salesman with General Motors and owner of Gambell Motors and Gambell Antiques and Tea Room, both in Minden. He served as warden of Lutterworth township, councillor for Minden Hills, and president of the Rotary Club of Minden. Gambell also became the host of Suwan’s Thai Cuisine, the popular restaurant of his business and life partner of 22 years, Suwan Khamduang.
“Ron had a very progressive attitude, and no matter how serious the subject of discussion, his sense of humour would capture people’s imagination and support,” said Jeanne Anthon, former Minden Hills reeve and councillor. “When I first moved up here permanently in 1991, and ran for council, Ron was one of the first persons to contact me. He was pleased to see a woman running for council.”
At the time, Anthon said Gambell was president of the Rotary Club of Minden.
“He invited me and Shirley Cooney to join Rotary and when he did that, I didn’t realize that there had been no women members of the club,” she said. “It was still a new opportunity for women around the world. They were just opening it up. So, Ron was breaking the mould when he invited us to join Rotary. It was a courageous thing to do because not every member agreed with that move. There was some resistance but he was determined to change their ways. And we were accepted. That was the start of women members for the Rotary Club of Minden.”
Norm Gambell, Ron’s eldest son, spoke of the fun he remembers.
“Growing up, we never wanted for anything,” he said. “We had snowmobiles, a cottage and boat on Davis Lake, trips to Florida and a trip to Alaska. Dad bought a Chevrolet Suburban and we drove to Alaska and came down the coast on a ferry from B.C. and then across Washington State and back to Ontario. It was a great two-month vacation!”
“Dad was also very thoughtful,” he said. “When I got my first job as a busboy at a steakhouse, he got me this serving tray with a picture of a big number one on it and the words: Best Busboy. And the time I took his granddaughter (now 26) to see him, he had the antique store back then with a sign in front that had letters you could change. He made it read: Welcome Amanda!”
Gambell’s nephew, Glenn, remembers his uncle’s talent to persuade. “Uncle Ron was a great salesman. He could talk people into doing things that they maybe weren’t comfortable doing. Like when I went to his cottage with my mom and dad and he convinced us all that we could water ski. He was an avid water skier. We really hadn’t had much experience but he got us all up. That’s why I can water ski today.”
The chapter most recently notable began in 1999 when Gambell met Suwan Khamduang, then a cook at the Tiger restaurant in Sutton. A frequent customer at the restaurant, he would tell her about his Minden antique business, the colourful people he would meet, the auctions, Salvation Army and other sources of inventory.
“It was so interesting to me,” she said. “I knew nothing like this in Thailand.” Khamduang came to Canada in 1994.
They began dating in 2000 and by mid-year, moved in together at Gambell’s residence in Minden.
“At first, Ron didn’t want me to do the restaurant,” Khamduang said, referring to her landmark Suwan’s Thai Cuisine. “He just wanted me to be there and take me everywhere to the auction sales. This was a new world to me, so exciting. I had never seen auctions before.”
Khamduang laughed, “Sometimes I would put my hand up (during the bidding) and would forget to put it down.”
Realizing how much she had bought, Khamduang worried about how she would sell it. She did her best but, “haggling with customers over price was too much for me. I told Ron, I want to do a restaurant.”
The issue began to draw a wedge between them. But, when Khamduang came close to buying a restaurant site on Highland Street in downtown Haliburton and moving on with her life, Gambell, not wanting to lose her, gave his support.
“At first, I was working only with a house stove,” Khamduang said. “But, two, three days after we opened, I got so busy, I needed a real kitchen. After one month he could see me work very hard and lots of people coming and he said, OK, you can have a full kitchen.”
Gambell soon enjoyed playing host at the restaurant (originally named The Wild Orchid), greeting people, being his charismatic self, telling stories of his life, and always showing interest in customers, many who would become long-time friends.
“Ron was really good at PR. I just cooked and chopped and stuff like that,” Khamduang said. “He helped hire the staff and took care of the books. He was very proud of the restaurant.”
Gambell’s love of antiques extended to the tables and chairs used in the restaurant. “Sometimes,” Khamduang said, “people would come in, they’d sit down at a table and if they liked it and asked if they could buy it, it would go, and we had to get another.”
Gambell and Khamduang’s relationship was deep and loving. “He called me, Gigi. I called him, Ronny.”
They loved travelling together and in 2000 went to Thailand for what would become an annual visit to see her large family.
“Everybody loved him,” she said. “Ron got along with people and they just loved him.”
They also traveled to the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Sweden, Denmark, and numerous parts of the United States.
“When he passed,” Khamduang said, “so many people posted really positive things wishing that he goes to heaven. People just loved him.”
Asked what she will miss most about her life partner of 22 years, Khamduang said, “His easy smile … warm, warm, warm.”
A Celebration of Life will be held at Suwan’s Thai Cuisine in the fall, the date to be announced at a later time.