William Ronald Gurdjian passed away the night of June 17, 2018 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was 78 years old. It is an understatement to simply say he was a friend of mine because ours was one of the longest and deepest friendships of my life, dating back to my early days in Detroit. Kay and Ron loved each other, too, but that came later.
As I lie awake, recalling many of our times together, I remember that Ron didn’t want me to marry Kay, just as he didn’t want me to buy an apartment in the upscale Detroit suburb of Troy in the early 1970s. I think Ron didn’t want our relationship to change, as he knew it would if I married or if I moved from the Palmer Park neighborhood where we both lived. He needn’t have worried.
Although changes came, they brought new opportunities to enhance our friendship, especially after Kay and I moved to New York City and began building our loft apartment. Ron became part of that building process, using his skills and creativity, first to design, build, and install a security gate and window bars and later to build an extensive roof deck out of pressure-treated lumber.
He loved working on the deck. Among his final words to Kay and me, shortly before his death, were those of appreciation for the opportunity to do that work. For Ron had the soul of an artist. He worked in steel and wood to fashion sculpture, toys, and furniture. One of his first large pieces was this large cabinet that he made for my apartment.
Though he had worked on it for weeks, I never saw it until it was finished and installed in my living room, occupying an entire wall. O how we partied that night!
From the first, I knew Ron as a builder. He made a large canoe, painted it yellow and covered it in fiberglass. He and I, sometimes with his young children in tow, paddled that canoe on camping trips along Michigan’s rivers. Ron never wanted to go to a developed campsite. Instead, we looked for un-posted, overgrown spots on the banks where we could set up his heavy canvas, army surplus tent and build a fire. They were good times.
Over the years Ron lived in different quarters in and around Detroit. For a while he lived and worked in a commercial space on west 6 Mile. It was there that he, other friends, and I often played table tennis in the evenings. Later, he occupied a barn near Clarkston, Michigan. At times, he slept on a sofa at a friend’s home in Ferndale. It wasn’t until later in life, after the death of his mother, that he inherited the condominium in Bloomfield Hills.
Ron cared deeply for his daughter Jennifer and son David. He didn’t have much money, yet he made a point to share quality time with them, taking them by train on one occasion to New York City to see the iconic sights and, at another time, to the historic mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
Ron visited us several times in New York, sometimes with his children and other times alone or with a friend. There, he often got together with another friend, the singer Pam Smith, with whom he would stay out late at night, frequenting spots like the Five Oaks Piano Bar in the Village.
Kay and I were not denizens of Tom’s Tavern on Detroit’s West 7 Mile Road. By the time Ron had taken over the bar after the death of its owner Tom Lucas, we were leaving New York for Istanbul. It was with pleasure that we watched Ron’s growing fame as a local celebrity on Facebook, as he made the Tavern one of the most well known bars in town and a cult favorite of many people who revered him for his generosity and life-affirming spirit. Of all Ron’s creations, Tom’s Tavern is probably his greatest. At least, it is the one that made the greatest difference for the largest number of people.
Judging by the outpouring of encomia, the Friends of Tom’s Tavern will greatly miss Ron. Kay, I, and our other Detroit-area friends certainly will. Ron’s passing has taken a piece of me with him.
We are sad to have lost him, but grateful for having had the opportunity of spending some final hours in his company. On the day of our visit, Ron had been released from the hospital only a week before, yet weak as he was, he was determined to make our last visit memorable.
With the help of his daughter Jenny and friend Sara, he showered, dressed and rode around the corner to a fashionable restaurant where the five us enjoyed a lovely dinner. Ron and I shared glasses of Jack Daniels over a plate of oysters on the half shell. Later, sitting in the tiny courtyard of his condo around a small fire, we reminisced about some favorite moments. It was the last time we were to see or speak with our friend. He died a few days later.