Doris Gambonini, a ranch woman who comforted Synanon refugees, dies at 80

09/25/2014

Doris Gambonini, a homemaker with a a constant smile and a stubborn, can-do attitude, passed away on Sept. 6 at 80 years old.

Doris and her husband, Alvin, lived on a ranch near Marshall that they often opened up to friends and locals: they regularly welcomed a hunting club and a motorcycle club and held numerous barn dances over the years. But there was one neighbor—the Church of Synanon, the infamous rehabilitation center turned cult—that became an alarming part of their family life in the 1970s. 

Doris was born in 1934 and grew up on Red Hill Road, between Point Reyes and Petaluma. Her father was a ranch worker and her mother was a housewife. The couple operated an informal “roadhouse,” or local watering hole, at their home, according to Doris’s son, Robert Gambonini.

Doris attended high school in Petaluma and, after graduation, worked at an ice cream shop on the Russian River. Her sweetheart Alvin, 12 years her senior, visited her there after the two met through Doris’s brothers. They married in 1957 and had three children together: Robert, Doreen and Alvina.

Alvin ran a dairy on the ranch till 1965, when he switched to beef cattle. Doris raised the children and cared for the home, a role that came naturally to her, Robert said. “She always put everybody first. She would never really complain. She didn’t want to bother anyone for anything,” he said. She always had snacks and a smile ready for guests that might come by, Alvina added.

Doris was a cooking leader for the local 4-H club; kids would visit the house and she would teach them how to make hors d’ouevres, cakes, cookies and full-fledged meals, as well as how to set a table.

In 1970, the Marin County Motorcycle Association was looking for a new place to ride their dirt bikes after the state purchased China Camp, said Dean Joyner, a family friend whose father was a member. The group reached out to the couple, who agreed to let them use portions of the ranch to ride. Doris and Alvin also opened the ranch once a year to the Sparrow Gun Club, a deer hunting group. (Many members were friends or relatives.) Doris held a luncheon for the wives while the men prowled for game.

The couple also hosted huge barn dances a few times a year, in an old milking barn. For about $10 a head, droves of people would come to eat barbecue, drink and dance to country bands on cornstarched floors. “If you were in Petaluma, you went to barn dances at Gamboninis,” Mr. Joyner said.

In West Marin, the Gambonini name is closely linked to Synanon, the drug rehabilitation center in Marshall that became known for its violent and cultish actions in the 1970s. The organization moved in next door to the Gambonini ranch; at first they seemed friendly, but there were tensions over a ranch road on the Gambonini property that Synanon had an easement on, according to “The Light on Synanon,” a book about the cult by this newspaper’s publisher emeritus Dave Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell and Richard Ofshe. After the group bought a cache of weapons, Mr. Gambonini was scared to plow his fields. In 1975, a contingent of Synanon members surrounded Alvin’s truck as he was driving up to his home. They crawled all over the vehicle, assaulting him and trying to pull him out; Doris was in the passenger seat trying to protect him, Robert said. Alvin managed to drive away and get home, though the thugs knocked a tooth out.

A number of teenage runaways from Synanon, fearing for their lives, fled to the Gambonini ranch (and to other ranches nearby) in the middle of the night—about 30 came to their home in a span of three years, according to a Light report from the time. One runaway reportedly told Doris how he was boxed on the ears for insubordination and could barely hear. Alvin would buy the kids bus tickets home, Robert said, and Doris would comfort them with a glass of milk or juice. She collected letters from parents of kids whom she and Alvin helped return home.

Synanon, Robert said, was not a happy time for the family. But Doris was not the kind of woman to show fear. “In a way she was [worried], but she stood behind my dad. My dad was fearless, and they were a team. She supported whatever he did; she would back him up regardless,” Robert said.

She also showed a rebellious sense of humor in her later years. Mr. Joyner said that at one point, after a doctor told her not to walk without her walker, “she walked over the place carrying the walker.” Alvina said her mother didn’t like to ask for help, preferring not to bother others. (It’s a trait she passed onto Alvina, whose husband often asks her why she just can’t ask for a little assistance sometimes.) 

But one time Doris’ can-do attitude got her into a bit of trouble, when she contracted an infection in her finger. Not wanting to make a bother, she passed it off as a minor problem needing some Epsom salt, Robert said. She later had part of the finger amputated. But as soon as she returned home, she was back working in the yard.

Doris’s yard was not only home to flowers, but also to a few cows. Though she started leasing out most of the ranch after Alvin died, she kept four or so cows around. She watched over them and ensured they didn’t escape into the road, a way she remained true to her husband till the end. “She was the proud owner of them,” Robert said. “I think she didn’t want to give them up because those were my dad’s. It kind of reminded her of him.”

 

Doris is survived by her son, Robert Gambonini; daughters Doreen Amaral and Alvina Balistreri; grandchildren Daniel and Michelle Gambonini, Alina and Suzanne Amaral and Marina and Vincente Balistreri; brothers James Capella and Andrew Capella; sister Marie DeCarli; and numerous nieces and nephews.