Harry Reese Gamber, a high school dropout who became a successful businessman specializing in drywall and painting, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at Gilchrist Hospice in Towson.
The Owings Mills resident, who had lived in Catonsville for many years, was 85.
The son of an auto mechanic and a homemaker, Harry Reese Gamber was born in a home in Westminster that is now Maggie's Restaurant.
His great-grandfather, William Snyder Gamber, who was a Civil War veteran, served as postmaster from 1881 to 1903 of the Carroll County village that was named for him.
In 1930, Mr. Gamber, who was known as Reese, was struck by an automobile that left him with serious nerve damage and a permanently injured right arm. Numerous hospitalizations left him behind in school, and when he was 13, he dropped out.
Unable to enlist for the service because of his arm, Mr. Gamber worked for the Red Cross during World War II.
From 1945 to 1948, he worked a variety of construction jobs, including driving a cement mixer for the Harry T. Campbell Co., and later rose to become a foreman.
"Because of his arm, he learned to shift the truck's gears by taking a hand off the wheel and using his knee," said a son, Gary R. Gamber, CEO of Carroll Real Estate Title Services Inc. and a Reisterstown resident.
After a job he was working on shut down, he went to a Violetville site where the Jerome Gebhart Co. was building homes. He was told the company wasn't looking for a foreman but needed a painter.
"When questioned about the value of a one-armed painter, he told them, 'I can paint,' and the next day showed up with another unemployed friend, Bill Stocksdale," said his son.
"So with Reese mixing and pouring the paint and Bill painting the walls, they launched Hollywood Painting & Decorating Co. in 1950," said Mr. Gamber.
Gebhart became a loyal customer of their company until its owner's death two decades later.
In 1965, Mr. Gamber merged his company with the August J. Fitch Drywall and Plastering Co. to form Wallcrafters Inc.
The first year the company was in business, said his son, it installed 25 million square feet of drywall and used more than 1 million gallons of paint, plaster, glue and joint compound. It had annual sales of more than $2 million.
A year later, the company had expanded to more than 350 employees and had "drywalled and painted practically every home and apartment constructed by Henry J. Knott, Edward Meyerberg Co., James Keelty Co., Joseph Meyerhoff Co., Morton Macks, Victor Posner, Macht Co., Leonard Stullman Co. and Mount Royal Building Co.," his son said.
Mr. Gamber developed a special paint for Mr. Knott, who complained about the cost of painting the approximately 15,000 apartment units he owned.
He mixed "excess waste oil-based colored paints with clean lacquer and created a speckled paint finish," his son said.
Realizing that middlemen in the paint industry were costing Wallcrafters more than $200,000 annually, Mr. Gamber, along with two other business associates, formed Contact Paint and Chemical Corp., which manufactured paint used by his company as well as other contractors.
In 1981, he sold Wallcrafters to his employees and then worked with his son in land development.
"He did the site planning for roads and utilities," his son said.
In addition to his own businesses, during the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Gamber became a licensed private detective and teamed with a friend, Lew Herman, who owned Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation.
The job of Mr. Gamber, who was 6 feet 5 and weighed 300 pounds, was to kick down doors during nocturnal raids on motels and hotels. Mr. Herman then snapped pictures of couples in adulterous situations that were used in divorce proceedings.
A stock car racing fan, Mr. Gamber built his first stock car from a 1930s flathead Ford, and later owned other cars that he had drivers race at tracks primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In 1956, he was named president of Free State Stock Car Racing Association. By 1958, he had retired from the sport.
Mr. Gamber had served for many years as a director of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, the American Subcontractors Association and the Society of American Military Engineers.
He was a member of Mount Moriah Lodge 116 of the Masons and Shriners International. He had been a charter member of the old Gas Lamp Club in downtown Baltimore.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church, 10911 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills.
In addition to his son, Mr. Gamber is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Helen Rosemary "Rosie" Kittle; five daughters, Deborah Ricker and Dana Fields, both of Catonsville, Dawn Ritt of Owings Mills, Deanna Urner of Homeland and Denise Lytle of Atlanta; 15 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.