Steve's Soapbox

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"Guest" is GOD : It's all about the Hospitality !

Hotelier honored for always having room at inn
By Jason Sheehan / Reporter-News Staff Writer
October 18, 2005

Fathers pass on various lessons to their sons.
Some learn how to throw and catch. Others learn how to hunt and fish.
Jay Gangwal learned how to give and help.
As a child growing up in India, Gangwal (pronounced gang-wall) watched his father cater to businessmen who were in town for meetings. He invited the travelers into their home, treating them like members of the family.
Gangwal is now the teacher. As the owner of the Civic Plaza Hotel at 505 Pine St., Gangwal has helped victims of local and national tragedies. When fire ripped through the 21/21 Apartments complex in April 2003, Gangwal opened the doors of his hotel so the Red Cross could begin taking care of the 70 families who lost their homes.
Dena Howard, who worked as the executive director for the Big Country Chapter of the Red Cross, said she'll never forget how Gangwal helped during the 21/21 Apartments fire.
''To me, that was one of the obvious pieces of Abilene you never forget,'' said Howard, who is now the emergency services director for the Heartland Chapter of the Red Cross in Omaha, Neb. ''He was so generous.''
Howard said Red Cross organizers initially thought they would have to find immediate shelter for only 11 victims of the fire and decided to put them up in Gangwal's hotel. By the time Howard was finished, about 40 people needed the hotel, she said.
Gangwal didn't blink an eye, she said.
''He was amazing,'' she said. ''He didn't charge us for the first three nights. I just thought he went over and above what he needed to do.''
Gangwal earned a Good Neighbor Award from the Red Cross, something he said he was extremely proud of.
More recently, Gangwal provided free rooms to evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse Gangwal for the rooms, but not for the food he has been providing.
He also has helped a refugee from Liberia find a part-time job in Abilene after the man relocated here through the International Rescue Committee.
Tony McMillan, general manager at the Taylor County Expo Center, said he met Gangwal shortly after he moved here. Gangwal has helped McMillan with rooms at the hotel when events come to the Taylor County Expo Center and the two have become friends over the years.
''He's a first-class gentleman if I've seen one,'' McMillan said. ''He's the most generous man I believe I've ever met.''
Although others are quick to talk about Gangwal's eagerness to help others in times of need, he is not so enthusiastic.
Gangwal grew up in Gujarat, an Indian province on the western side of the country. His father was in the clothing business. Gangwal graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in commerce and business management and went into business for himself.
''At age 22, I had 60 people working for me,'' he said. ''I was crazy. That was the energy I had.''
But in 1977, Gangwal decided it was time to leave his roots and plant a new seed in America. At his brother's urging, Gangwal moved to the United States. The first city he landed in was Denver, joining his brother.
What a year it was in Colorado, too. The Broncos were in the midst of going to their first Super Bowl. The city was alive with the Orange Crush spirit, and Gangwal couldn't help but feel it. He fell in love with American football.
''We'd watch the Broncos every Sunday and tape them,'' he said. ''In the summer (when there was no live football), we'd still get together every Sunday and watch them.''
Gangwal said he and his wife, Harsha, still cheer for the Broncos.
During his time in Denver, Gangwal worked for a research and development company and a construction company. Then in 1987, he left Colorado for California and worked for an attorney.
In 1998, he purchased the Civic Plaza Hotel and moved to Abilene.
''The hotel business was in the back of my mind because it's hospitality,'' he said. ''I got the opportunity to purchase the property in Abilene, and that's why I did it.''
The move would prove to be a perfect fit. Gangwal returned to the business world as a hotel owner. Perhaps more importantly, he got the opportunity to practice the philosophy of the Hindu religion.
''In my country, in my religion, they teach us 'guest' is God,'' he said. ''Taking care of guests ... makes me feel good.''
Still, Gangwal doesn't like to talk about the good deeds he has done. They are expected of him, especially in a community such as the Big Country.
''I don't want to talk about it because it's bragging,'' he said. ''This is a community, and we do whatever is good for the community. When people need help and you can help that person, then you should do it.''
Besides, Gangwal said, he has a long way to go before he even comes close to his father's hospitality skills .
''I learned from my father,'' he said. ''He was a good host. He was better than I am.''
Contact staff writer Jason Sheehan at or 676-6784.