Longtime furniture restorer remembered for passion, skill

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CUMBERLAND — For Ronnie “Ron” Sanders, leaving the world better than he found it was a way of life — from the furniture he restored through his nearly 60-year-old family business, to his community through the organizations he helped lead.

And while saddened by his death last month, those who knew and loved him find comfort in remembering how he touched their lives.

Ron Sanders in his office earlier in his career. (Submitted photo)
Ron Sanders in his office earlier in his career. (Submitted photo)

Sanders died at age 69 on May 23, after collapsing at his home and going into cardiac arrest while being transported to the hospital. He owned and operated The Shambles Furniture Restoration at 7183 W. U.S. 40 in Cumberland, where an 1820s log cabin he restored stands out among the houses and businesses along the highway. The company, which drew notable clients and historical restoration projects over the decades, will close next week.

Sanders graduated from New Palestine High School in 1970 and earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Anderson College before joining the family company, which his father, Alva Sanders Jr., started in 1966.

The business got its name from The Shambles, a street in York, England, with buildings dating to the Middle Ages.

Sanders’ daughter, Ashley Clark, said he was highly engaged in family, both past and present.

“He was a big family guy,” Clark said. “He’d been researching family history for years, and always made sure to go to any family event.”

He hosted many of those events at his log cabin, she added.

“He was gentle,” Clark said. “He worked really hard for his community.”

He was a former president of the Indiana National Road Association and Sugar Creek Township Board and also served on the Cumberland Town Council.

Sanders took over The Shambles after his father’s death in 1997.

“He loved meeting people through it,” Clark said.

Jan Lynam, The Shambles’ office and shop manager who has worked for the business for 11 years, said a variety of furniture was restored there over the decades, from conference tables, to exterior doors, to wrought iron furnishings.

“From tiny, miniature dollhouse furniture to items that could barely fit into the spray booth,” she added. “It’s been a wide range of things.”

Lynam also went to high school with Sanders and remembers him competing on the football and wrestling teams.

“He tried to be the tough guy …but his heart was as big as he was,” Lynam said.

The Shambles restored furniture for The Columbia Club, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and Simon Property Group offices in Indianapolis, as well as Purdue University in West Lafayette.

“And he always took pride in it,” Lynam said.

Some of his customers were third-generation.

“I just always thought that spoke so highly of the business,” Lynam said.

He had a unique talent for his line of work.

“We’ve seen things in pieces, or they look like they’ve been through the biggest hailstorm in the world, unbelievable furniture, and you’d think, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Lynam said. “And he could look at it and it was like he could see the finished product — what it could be made to look like. … He could see things that the rest of us couldn’t.”

Clark agreed.

“He had the eye for stuff like that,” she said. “He had the skill to do some more of the intricate, complicated things.”

Sanders also spent years restoring an old Model T.

“He was a restorer of history, not only with the business, but just with everything that he put his hand in,” Clark said.

Sanders had a passion for photography as well, and shot for the The Associated Press at the Indianapolis 500, Talladega Superspeedway, Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. He also enjoyed scuba diving.

Clark said her father contracted COVID-19 in January, which left him with trouble breathing after the virus had run its course.

After Sanders collapsed on May 23, he was conscious and talking on the stretcher as paramedics loaded him into an ambulance, but he went into cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital.

Clark said he got to see much of his family the day before at his stepbrother’s wedding celebration, many of whom he hadn’t been able to see in a long time because of the pandemic.

Sanders is also survived by his wife, Jennye Sanders; daughter, Andrea Sanders; and granddaughter, Lilly Clark, as well as other relatives. He was buried in New Palestine Cemetery.

“His family I think meant more to him than anything else,” Lynam said. “Especially his little granddaughter. … He would’ve sold his soul if it meant something for Lilly. She meant the world to him. I hope that they talk about him … to keep his memory alive for her, to let her know that her grandpa was a good guy, he ran a great business, and a lot of people knew him.”

The Shambles will close on June 30. Its five employees are finishing the last of the business’s jobs and not taking on any new work.

COVID-19 took a toll on the company. Lynam recalled how it had to close for two months at the beginning of the pandemic, as it wasn’t an essential business. Much of its work thrived on moving claims from damage during moves, Clark said, which diminished throughout the pandemic as well.

Business had already been slowing down as of late, Clark continued, as more people learn how to restore furniture on their own and buy cheaper furniture not worth restoring.

Long after the lights shut off in the business for the last time, Lynam will remember two of them turning on after being seemingly inoperable. There are two fluorescent bulbs in the building that haven’t worked in several years, she said, adding that changed recently as she and two of her coworkers were leaving for the day.

“I follow them out and lock the door, we got in the back room, and all of a sudden both these bulbs came on,” Lynam said. “We all three stood there and just kind of looked at each other.”

Then her coworker said, “Ron’s saying, ‘You guys get back to work,’” she recalled with a laugh.