A Life's Story
November 02, 2019
Much ventured, much gained
Surviving a grave kidney condition as a child left Margaret Kentner with an indomitable spirit for life
By: Kevin Rollason
To call Margaret Kentner a whirlwind would actually downplay the force of nature she was in life.
But whatever she did — and she did plenty — she did it with class. A Touch of Class, in fact.
Kentner was on a group trip to Chile and Argentina when she suffered a heart attack and died on Sept. 28. She was 74.
"She passed away peacefully, in her sleep, in a hotel room with a view of a lake and the mountains behind it," her niece, Julie Kentner, said recently.
"It was just how she would have wanted it. She would have been a terrible old lady — that wouldn’t have been her."
Kentner was a business entrepreneur at a time when there were still few women who were able to take the plunge. She didn’t start just one successful business, but a handful, including A Touch of Class, the Medicine Rock Cafe and Thee Olde Nunnery to name just three.
But, before Kentner could be a force of nature, she had to fight to survive her childhood. She was diagnosed with a serious kidney illness when she was four years old.
"She was so sick," Julie said. "My dad said he was there when the doctors said there’s nothing they could do.
"She survived and it made her aware of how precious life is. She was a natural gypsy."
But to survive, Kentner’s parents had to take their daughter to a naturopath in Vancouver who prescribed a radical — and expensive — diet for a child growing up on a farm near Boissevain.
"She was on a diet of watermelon, grapes, salads and a half a wheat-germ muffin a day for a year," Julie said.
"You can still see the stain from the watermelon on the wooden cutting board that slides into the cupboards. And I just can’t imagine what it cost for that diet and to get fresh grapes and watermelon in southwest Manitoba.
"But they were told if you don’t do this, she will die."
The diet worked, Kentner lived, and she went on to receive a political science degree from Brandon College and a history degree from the University of Manitoba.
Before going back to work on her master’s degree in history, Kentner hitchhiked with a friend to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1966 and worked in an English pub for a year to pay for her trips throughout Europe, the Middle East, India and Greece.
Friend Becky Parkes, who worked at A Touch of Class for almost a decade, said Kentner’s last hitchhiking trip wasn’t too many years ago.
"She hitchhiked across Canada when was 65," Parkes said. "We all looked at her and said she was crazy, but she said she wanted to see the country and it’s a safe way to travel.
"She just never stopped. She was full of great ideas and was always an entrepreneur."
A Touch of Class was born in Kentner’s home in 1975, but it wasn’t long before it became a fixture on Academy Road, selling everything from cartons of rubber eggs to sterling silver bridge pencils to $600 brass bird cages to fancy silver and dinnerware.
Parkes said during her time working at A Touch of Class, which was among the city’s first gift boutique shops, she never felt like she was an employee.
"She treated people as a friend or as a co-worker — she was never a boss," Parkes said.
"The special part about the store was the gift wrapping. We all got really great at wrapping and she taught us ways to make sure the tape never showed. I still wrap Christmas presents that way and often think of her when I do.
"And she had a great buying flair — she always would buy the right thing to sell."
Another special feature of A Touch of Class was the way gifts were delivered in a 1950s-era burgundy-and-black English taxi. She saw it during a buying trip in the U.K. and shipped it back. It now is with her nephew in Boissevain.
But her life, and business, changed after Kentner met her longtime partner, Hennie Van Gerwen, at a Halloween party in 1986.
"She was dressed as Charlie Chaplin when I saw her; she was dressed as a man, but I knew she was not a man," Van Gerwen said, laughing.
"She was pretty nice. She was a free spirit. I liked her right from the start."
The pair moved in to a rural property near Marquette, causing her to sell A Touch of Class, because it was too far to commute. Before long, Kentner was thinking about another business closer to home, this time a restaurant. She built a large log structure in St. Francis Xavier and in 1991 the Medicine Rock Cafe and the Ghost Horse Saloon was open.
"We went on a trip to South Dakota and the first place we’re sitting in there was a cafe called the Medicine Rock Cafe," Van Gerwen recalled. "She just decided to have a restaurant and call it that."
Two years later, after selling that business, she opened another one down the street, Thee Olde Nunnery in 1994, and then, three years later, the Tin Lizzie Car Barn.
Kentner developed and operated the gift shop at Dalnavert Museum in 2004 and ran it until 2011, but, at the same time, in 2006, she established Global Village Artifacts and Accents in Stonewall, which closed in 2013.
A year later, what became The Grand Bazaar gift shop in Stonewall opened. This turned out to be her last business and she was still operating it when she died.
"She just always made you feel very special," Julie said. "And she was always looking for that next best cool thing."
Besides Van Gerwen, Kentner is survived by her brother, her stepsons, Rob, Rick and James, four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
Margaret Kentner on a trip to Moscow, Uzbekistan and Kahksikstan in 2015.