To quote Ron Nowling, “I have had a weird life!”
Considering he’s gone the gamut from engineering to flying, to auto sales, to the Shriners and Masons to ground communications companies to nuclear and fossil businesses to machine guns, back to cars and trucks with his Auto Ranch in Lebanon to what’s now Family Campers, that definition might fit. When this writer contacted him about doing a story, it was planned that the story would center on camping. A few minutes into the interview, it appeared Ron himself should be the story.
Hailing from a farm outside Indianapolis, Ind., Ron was born Dec. 6, 1937 and was walking by the time he was nine months old. When he was a year old, his mother was boiling water, turned her back for a minute and Ron reached up and pulled the entire pan of boiling water all over him. He spent the next several months in the intensive care unit at the hospital where he was one of the ones experimented on with the use of plasma.
When he was four years old, he and older sister, Marilyn, would get up early and listen to the radio. This one particular morning they announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” said Ron, “but since it interrupted the regular broadcast, I figured it must be important. I ran into my parents and announced that Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Boy, they knew what it meant!”
While both of his parents worked, there was a series of housekeepers/babysitters taking care of Ron and Marilyn. One of them had a tendency to sit down on the job and read Life Magazine instead of playing with the kids.
“She had just scrubbed the bedroom floor. Marilyn and I brought in our cat to play barber and shaved it with all the hair going onto the clean, wet floor,” Ron recalled. “She considered us too much aggravation and quit. We got another maid/babysitter so Sis and I spread sugar and coffee all over the floor that time, which didn’t go over well with our parents because those items were rationed at that time. Dad took us out in his Model A Ford and lowered the boom on us by explaining about jails for girls and boys and we were headed there. Our attitudes changed in a hurry!”
Small for his age, Ron didn’t excel in sports, but did well in math and science in school. After school, he would climb aboard the tractor in the field where his father had gotten off it and continue plowing until dark. When he graduated from high school, his parents sent him to an all male college, Terra Rose Poly Tech of Engineering.
“I thought an engineer was a guy who drove a train,” Ron said with a laugh, “so I didn’t last long there. I quit and joined the Air Force where I served as a single engine jet fighter mechanic.”
In 1961, Ron was discharged from the Air Force, met and married Gail who he’d met in Westfield, Mass., started working in auto sales in Indianapolis and the Nowlings had their son Greg. Right after that, Ron began driving a 350 GT Mustang in the Sports Car Club of America.
“I started work at the Ford dealership in 1961 while we were still in recession,” remembered Ron. “After two months, I hadn’t sold a car and the owner decided we should part company. I asked him how much notice I should give. He said no notice was necessary, just for me to go. He didn’t take back my keys, so I just left, went home and told my Dad I had been fired. My Dad asked what I had done to be fired. I told him nothing that I knew, I just hadn’t sold anything.
“My Dad said I had been laid off, not fired – which made me feel better – but I still had their keys and felt I should go back. I went back the next day and sold a car. Three days later, I had sold three cars. Up until that time, they hadn’t even put me back on the board. Finally the owner told them to put me back. From that point, I was either the No. 1 or No. 2 salesman of the month/year. I also had my demo car plus a Rolls Royce that I had traded a hot rod plus some cash for.”
Roy Friend, the general manager at the dealership in Indianapolis, wanted his own store. He got it in Muncie, Ind. and asked Ron to come with him and set that store up.
Ron had no intentions of staying, but went. Then, Alderman at the previous dealership wanted him back as Used Car Manager. So, Ron did that until he gained a reputation for being able to go into stores, hire management and set up crews. He did that for a couple of dealerships and was then approached by Chrysler, which led to his own purchase of a dealership in Wheeling, W.V.
“Chrysler had a Dealer Development Program which allowed qualified people to go in and buy a dealership on a buyout program,” explained Ron. “I borrowed money from Dad to get into that one in 1969.”
Around this time, he also acquired a multi-engine instrument pilot rating, so he took up flying. He also became a member of the Confederate Air Force Warbirds of America. In 1964 and 1965, he joined the Masonic Lodge Scottish Rite and Shriners, all of which he is still a member. Daughter Robyn was born in ’64, the night he was inducted into the 3rd Degree Masonic Lodge.
Ron sold the Wheeling store in 1971 and Chrysler asked him to go to a Dodge dealership in Raleigh, N.C.
“The two fellows who had an investment under the Dealer Development had lost their investment,” said Ron. “I met the rep from Chrysler and he took them to lunch. While they were gone, I had all the locks changed. That’s how we took over. Funny, about five years later, we did the same thing to another dealership and found that same dealer. He didn’t even bother going to lunch that day. He just picked up his jacket and left.”
During his time there, Ron had put in an application on a new flagship store they were building in Fort Wayne, Ind. for American Motors Jeep. They offered the same type of program Chrysler had. When Ron applied, he had verifiable funds on hands. In the meantime, he and Gail decided to buy a house and he used a portion as down payment.
“When I was notified I had gotten the dealership in 1972, I wrote a check on those funds,” said Ron. “The check was short. I just stood there and waited because if American Motors wanted me, they were going to have to come up with the remainder of the money for the bank. I guess they wanted me bad enough because that’s what they did. I spent a lot of time building that dealership. When I sold it, Johnny Bench’s brother bought it.”
After selling the Jeep dealership, Ron went to work for Rolls Royce until they sold the Palm Beach dealership that he was running.
He went back to being an interim fixer until Merrill Lynch called him.
In 1982, he met Bob Starer who owned several companies and wanted Ron to help run those. For five years, Ron dealt with fixed based operations dealing with air to ground communications; nuclear signs; 450 nuclear and fossil engineers that they put into nuke plants dealing with Instrument Nuclear Calibration; plus a company dealing with and ultimately manufacturing 50 caliber Browning machine guns.
“I was sent to turn that company around in 1985 and that’s when we moved to Lebanon,” said Ron. ”In 1989, Texas Oil made a run on us and got us. Everybody lost their job and I decided to retire again (for about the third time). Needing something to do, I went back to selling cars and trucks and started the Auto Ranch in 1992. I was planning on retiring again. I had fooled around with Fifth Wheels for several years, but never did anything concrete with them. In 2000, my son Greg sold his computer company and decided he would retire.”
“I came to Lebanon in 2004, determined that I was done working and running companies,” said Greg. “However, I told Dad he had the perfect place here to sell campers. Camping is something I love.”
“I jumped at the chance of somebody else doing the physical work so I could relax,” said Ron. “We formed Family Campers which is now a fulltime manager’s job for Greg. Daughter Robyn runs the Parts Dept. and wife, Gail, works part time handling the accounting. I go in to handle titles and such. We are the largest camper sales in four states, are the No. 2 dealer of camping parts on E-bay and have expanded our service department so that we get customers from several surrounding states and as far west as New Mexico and Texas. Last month was our best one yet and this month, Greg is opening our No. 2 sales in Gringold, Ga. with a partner there.”
“We have the tenacity for never quitting,” said Greg. “We held in here while several other camper sales went under and all but one manufacturer quit financing. We continued to expand, so when the need came, we were here.”
Hobbies include camping for Greg, while Ron likes old cars, classics and antiques.
“Flying got too expensive, but I have a caramel colored, 1961 Cadillac convertible with a dark tan roof that I think I look good in and I love driving it,” Ron admitted.
He and Gail have been married 51 years and are members of Emanuel Baptist Church where Gail sings in the choir.
“It’s a good thing Greg came home when he did,” said Ron. “In 2009, I was diagnosed with heart problems that necessitated a quadruple by-pass and Pacemaker along with diabetes and COPD. Me and oxygen have become good buddies and needless to say, I can’t go and do like I used to. But we are in a business we can have fun with, enjoy and we can keep it in the family!”
Don’t know if his life should be classified as weird, but Ron Nowling has certainly had a varied one.
Family Campers is listed at 101 Southside Park Dr. which is located at 231 S. (Murfreesboro Rd.) across from Timberline Campground and just up from Maddox Simpson Parkway/Hartmann Dr. interchange.