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Grill owner fondly remembered

Ronda Emerson was an institution in Otis Orchards. She and her husband Vance have owned the Otis Grill at Wellesley Avenue and Harvard Road for nearly seven years and she knew everyone.

Now the entire community is in mourning after she died Monday following a snowmobiling accident Sunday in Montana. She was 41.

The popular restaurant and gathering place was even busier than usual during lunch on Wednesday as many regulars came in to express their sorrow. “People come in to see her,” said her husband. “She knows everything about everyone. Little kids come in and they all give her hugs.”

The couple owns a cabin in the Yaak River basin in Montana and frequently spend their winter weekends snowmobiling with friends. Last weekend was no different as they traveled through a remote area miles from the nearest road, but then something went wrong. “We’ve done it a hundred times,” Emerson said. “We don’t know what happened. She just ran right into a tree.”

Emerson stayed by his wife with friends and built a fire to keep her warm when others went for help. It took 10 hours for a search and rescue team to arrive from Libby, Mont., and the wait seemed like forever, Emerson said. He said he can’t fault the work of the team, who strapped his wife to a backboard and used ropes to haul her up a 600 foot embankment by hand.

In the end his wife could not overcome her injuries, he said. “They couldn’t get to us in time,” Emerson said. “We couldn’t move her. She couldn’t hold on anymore.”

The couple met when she was working as a box girl at Rosauers and Emerson was working for Yoke’s Pac and Save. A friend introduced them. “I took her to lunch and we just hit it off,” he said. “That was 22 years ago. It just felt like our love was getting better and stronger.”

They had been married for 20 years and had two children together. Vance Emerson also has two children from another relationship.

She loved to hike and pick huckleberries in her secret spot in Montana. She was born and raised in the Spokane area and graduated from Central Valley High School. She worked for many years at Rosauers, Albertsons and an assisted living center. She spotted the vacant building several years ago and wanted to open a restaurant, Emerson said.

“She decided it was time to do something for herself,” he said. “It sounded like a great idea.”

Opening a restaurant is a tricky proposition and many fail. But Emerson said his wife worked hard to make her dream come true while he worked his day job at Franz Bakery. “She wasn’t afraid of anything,” he said. “She lived life to the fullest. Everything she did was over the top, 110 percent.”

Emerson said he learned to support his wife when she took the lead and charged full speed ahead. “Sometimes I didn’t like it, but I was there, right behind her,” he said. “She was awesome. She’s going to be missed not only by me.”

That was evident Wednesday. As people finished their lunches and left, many of them stopped to give Emerson a hug and tell him how sorry they were and how much they would miss his wife. Flower arrangements and sympathy cards lined the counter. Retired Otis Orchards Postmaster Milly Kropp was one of the regulars who stopped to offer her condolences. Kropp said she remembered Ronda’s laugh. “It was hearty,” she said.

Kropp said she comes in to the restaurant four or five times a week and community meetings are often held there. It’s the people who keep her coming back, she said. “It’s become the gathering place,” she said. “My husband likes the food, there’s no doubt about it.”

Kropp said she also admired how generous Ronda was to the community. She would host free Thanksgiving dinners, do fundraisers for people in the community and sponsor families for Christmas. Emerson said she once wrote a check to a woman who needed money to travel to Seattle for medical treatment. People are always coming up to him on the street and thanking him for something his wife did, Emerson said.

The restaurant crew, who are either family members or feel like family, have been struggling this week as well. Niece Jessica Hotchkiss has worked as a waitress at the Otis Grill for five years. “You feel like a piece of you is missing,” she said.

She and her aunt were not particularly close before but became nearly best friends after she began working there, Hotchkiss said. “She taught me everything,” she said. “She was a very easy person to work for. She was very strong-willed, intelligent, very beautiful inside and out. She was willing to do everything for everybody.”

Now the staff is focused on doing what they can for her, Hotchkiss said. They are used to running the restaurant while the Emersons took frequent weekend trips. “I think we can hold it together for her,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else. I’m a lifer.”

Emerson knows it won’t be the same without his wife but he’s determined to keep the restaurant open. “This was her,” he said. “This was really her. Our community needs this place. We’re really going to try and make this work.”

The restaurant will close at 1:30 p.m. today so customers and staff can attend the funeral. It is scheduled for 3 p.m. A potluck meal will follow. “I’m sure there will be a lot of tears and a lot of laugher,” Emerson said. “She was just everything to me. She was a rock, a rock to the community and a rock to the family.”