William Ron Gurdjian, bartender and co-owner of Tom’s Tavern, died Sunday at age 78. Gurdjian was a fixture at the establishment on Seven Mile since the 1970s and became a dedicated steward of the bar after founder Tom Lucas died. In recent months, the bar has been closed due to ongoing issues with the city and Gurdjian’s own health issues. Now that he is gone, the future of Tom’s is uncertain. Local bar historian Mickey Lyons of Prohibition Detroit knew Gurdjian well and even spent a few shifts behind the bar at Tom’s Tavern. Eater asked Lyons to share some memories of Gurdjian.
Ron Gurdjian never had any intention of running a bar, really. It’s just that one day, after Tom passed away, he stopped in to clear the weeds growing into the cracked walls and to make sure vandals hadn’t trashed the place. Someone saw the lights on and stopped in to say, “Hi.” So Ron handed him a beer and took his cash and put it in the drawer. Then someone else saw the lights on and stopped in and Ron gave him a beer and took his money, too.
That’s how Ron Gurdjian ended up as the proprietor of Tom’s Tavern on Detroit’s west side for more than 20 years. Before that he’d been a regular and an occasional bartender when the original owner, Tom Lucas, would toss him the keys, so Tom could step out and watch the horse races. To those who knew him, though, Ron was always much more than the simple barkeep of one of Detroit’s most iconic dives.
Peering over his spectacles with a quizzical look and a crooked grin, Ron was fond of interrogating newcomers and old regulars. He also loved to talk — about subjects as diverse as horse racing and urban planning, 20th-century philosophy, and Detroit baseball. Ron was a sage, sure, but the kind of sage only Detroit can produce: he had plenty of wisdom to share, but chose to parse it out with generous helpings of spectacular profanity. Ron was breathtakingly intelligent and genuinely warm and beloved by generations of Detroiters who visited Tom’s. He was ours.
Ron loved matchmaking, forging unlikely friendships between his mismatched patrons. He’d introduce students from nearby University of Detroit to steelworkers and out-of-work contractors and watch the new alliance of misfits steam forward. “What do you mean, you don’t know each other yet?” he’d ask. “Well, we’d better change that.”
On the bar’s busiest night of the year, the annual Babe Ruth Birthday Party, Ron wandered the crowd with his ever-present rocks glass full of ice and Jack Daniel’s, exchanging back slaps with the men and taking turns dancing with the ladies. Ron was a hell of a dancer. To watch him work the bar was to bear witness to an elegant ballet unique to the barkeep.
Ron loved his music, too, from honky-tonk and bluegrass to old-school soul. Every time I’d stop in for a visit or to work a shift, Ron would immediately turn on the jukebox and play for me his most recent acquisition, often a gift from a local band who’d played the hallowed but uneven floorboards there recently. In many ways, Ron did more to support Detroit’s down-and-out musicians and upcoming talent than just about any other bar proprietor. Sure, you didn’t get much money playing Tom’s, but you got the generous smile on Ron’s face and you got to witness his toe-tapping joy. You might also get some of his legendary chili, cooked up on the giant and ancient stove in the back with whatever was on hand.
I will miss Ron dearly; a lot of us will. We’ll miss his laconic witticisms and his florid rants and his puckish charm. I’ll miss Tom’s, too, but Ron was so much more than the bar, glorious and ramshackle as that bar was. His rich life and warmth brought us together, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Around town tonight, a whole lot of us will be raising a rocks glass filled with ice and Jack to one of the greatest characters this town has seen in decades. He deserves no less.