Tom Ryan, July 20th, 2015


Tom Ryan, July 20th, 2015


In this interview Tom Ryan discusses his childhood and adolescence in Detroit. He also shares rich stories from his four decade career in radio. Tom also shares his experiences serving in the National Guard during the events in 1967.




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI








Detroit Herman Gardens Michigan Air National Guard University of Detroit Radio


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Tom Ryan

Brief Biography

Tom Ryan was born July 28, 1942 at Providence Hospital in Detroit. After graduating from the University of Detroit, he began a successful radio career. In July 1967, Tom was stationed downtown with his Michigan Air National Guard unit. Tom’s career in radio spanned more than four decades.

Interviewer's Name

Noah Levinson and Lillian Wilson

Interview Place

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan



Interview Length



Alaina Vacha

Transcription Date



NL: Today is July 28, 2015. This is the interview of Tom Ryan by Noah Levinson and Lily Wilson. We are in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. 

NL: Tom, thanks for joining us.

TR: You're very welcome.

NL: Could you first tell me where and when were you born?

TR: I was born on July 28, 1942 in Providence Hospital on West Grand Boulevard. A long time ago in a land far away.


NL: Where were you living when you were growing up?

TR: Well, I grew up in the projects of Detroit. I grew up in a project called Herman Gardens, which was at basically the corner of Southfield Road and Joy Road. It was built for returning World War II veterans who needed housing. My parents were divorced at the time, which was unusual for that time, especially from a good, Catholic family. But they were and my mother had my sister and I and she was working for the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. And she needed a low-income place to live and she got in there. And then they wanted to throw us out because she was not a veteran and she had a job and then she convinced them that, “Look. I'm raising two children and this is all I can afford.” And bottom line was they said, “Okay, you can stay.” And it was really kind of a neat place to live because it was a project, no buildings were higher than two stories, it was immense; it literally went east down Joy Road, south down Southfield and there was a street called Tireman and it went down there. And it was huge; they had a huge power plant there that ran all the electricity and the heat and everything and it was a great neighborhood. You knew everybody in the buildings and the irony of that, of where we lived, was years and years later, I was working at WOMC Radio. I was doing the morning show and there was a fellow that followed me on the air, who has since passed away, named Nick Arama. I was on six to ten. He came on ten to two. And just out of the blue one day, we were talking about Herman Gardens – I was talking about it. He said, “Oh, my god! I lived in Herman Gardens.” I said, “Really?!” He said, “Yes!” I said – we talked about how cool it was and I never said, “Where did you live?” And I said – You know what? The neatest thing was on Friday nights when television first came out – God, I’m sounding old. [laughter] But when television first came out and people started getting sets, there was a guy who would come down – our two buildings were connected by a walkway. And on Friday nights he would bring his television downstairs and plug it in and it had rabbit ears and all the neighbors would gather to watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights. He said, “That was my father.” [laughter] I said, “You lived next door to me?” And he said, “You lived on Van Buren, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “We lived – that was my dad.” Of course I was small at the time. I didn’t realize who he was or anything like that, that years later we would connect the same thing. So I grew up basically from kindergarten through the seventh grade, I lived in Herman Gardens, which is now been leveled, torn down and I think they have some plans for it. And years and years later it got kind of a skanky neighborhood, but that was long after we left. Probably because I left – [laughter] – the neighborhoods just always go to hell when I leave. But anyways, then I moved over to right across the street from the University of Detroit. And then the economic move, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother and I moved on a street called Fairfield, which is right across from the University of Detroit, which later I went to school at, and we lived there. And then I got married and the rest is lovely history.

NL: Could you tell me a little bit more about the makeup of the people that were living in the project? I know you said it was lower socioeconomic –

TR: Yes. It was –

NL: – ages of people, families, races.

TR: A lot of families were very white at that time.

NL: Okay.

TR: Extremely. Because it was all World War II veterans coming back, raising their families there. It was a lot of kids – tremendous amount of kids, which made it a lot of fun because I’m talking about kindergarten through the seventh grade, so we had a lot of wonderful friendships and met a lot of wonderful kids and it was a great neighborhood for children. We all played together. We all went to school together, so it really was a cool neighborhood I thought, anyway.

NL: And at what point did you first move out of the city limits of Detroit to either Bloomfield Hills or other suburbs?

TR: I didn’t move out of Detroit until I got married. When we left Fairfield by U of D we moved over to Grand River, and again with my mother and my aunt, but that was just – I mean, my sister had left. She was ten years older, and still is ten years older, than myself and she had joined the Foreign Service of the United States, so she left and so it – my grandmother had passed away, so it was my aunt, my mother and myself. And we moved over to northwest Detroit, off of Grand River and Winthrop. We stayed there a few years. I met my wife and in ’72 we got married and then we moved, my wife and I bought a little condo, in Southfield. Stayed there about a year. She was – she had a very successful job. She worked as originally as a buyer for Hudson’s and then she went on up to Lord & Taylor and then she became the head buyer for Lord & Taylor and then Ann Taylor and then she eventually worked 13 years for Disney. She was the Vice President of all merchandising for Disney. We commuted back and forth from Detroit to Orlando. She would work in Orlando and I would work here on the radio and in the winter time, I would spend more weekends going to Florida. Hello, I’m not an idiot. [laughter] And the summertime she would come home here for weekends because it was brutally hot there. So we did that for 13 years and the radio station and Disney cooperated and allowed me every year to do three weeks of my show from the Disney radio studio, not even saying I was there, so it could be snowing here and I’d be sitting in a studio in Disney watching the afternoon parade go by in eighty-degree weather and saying, “My god, the snow is terrible today," and I'm looking out — [laughter] So it was a little bit of a commuter marriage, but we made it work and after she retired from Disney and we came back here, we lived on a place in Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield for 28 years on Pine Lake. And then the house got too big. I mean, we have no children, so it was just a huge home. But we loved it. [laughter] And we could afford it. We were on a lake and we thought, “This was wonderful”. And then eventually we said, “You know what? I think we need something where everything is on one floor.” [laughter] And we moved into this house four years ago and she completely gutted this place and all that you see around you is her work.

NL: Wow.

LW: It’s gorgeous.

TR: Yeah, she's an amazing decorator. I always said, “You should do this for a living.” There was a wall right here. Mostly, a wall and a little door here and she gutted the whole kitchen and she always tells everybody, “This kitchen is built around that television.” Because I said, “I have to have a TV in the kitchen.” [laughter] So she told the builders, she says, “I don't know how you're going to do it, but a TV has to go up there so my husband can watch television.” So that's my kinda life story in a nutshell as to geography.

NL: Could you tell me a little bit more about the neighborhood on Grand River in northwest Detroit?

TR: It was – now, these were my days after college, so I was working at the radio station and I didn't – it really wasn't – we knew hardly any of our neighbors because I was never home. You know, I was young, my mother and my aunt were home, but I didn't hang around the neighborhood. There was a great bar down the street called Dooley's Bar, which was my bar and played softball for them and, you know, I was there all the time. [laughter] If you wanted to find me, you could find me there. [laughter]

NL: Could you tell me about how you got your start in your radio career?

TR: I always wanted to be in radio and when I was in college I was on the little campus station at the University of Detroit, which was only heard within the confines of the university. I forget what they called it. It was some kind of a microwave signal or something. You could only hear it on campus and I did five days a week; I did a show from downstairs in their basement where our little radio station was and could basically do anything I wanted. I brought my own records. They had no record library. The whole thing was practice radio and you do what you want as long as you keep it clean, we don't care what you do, so I did. I would just talk and play music and my favorite music. So, that's how I got the start. That's how I said – I always wanted to be a sports caster. I would sit as a kid in front of the television watching baseball with the sound off and I would do the play-by-play. [laughter] And that was my goal. I wanted to be a sports caster. So after college I got a job. I was dating a girl whose father was a sales manager at a radio station. And so after college I started – you know, we didn't have internships then. There was never heard of, “Oh yeah. Come here. Work for free,” which I thought would have been fabulous. And so I started to go to radio stations and just put my name in. So I happened to, not even thinking about it, go to the station where her dad worked. And I walked in. I wanted to fill out an application and so all of a sudden he walks in. And I said, “Mr. Davidson?” “Tom, what are you doing here?” I said, “I'm looking for work” and everything. He says, “What kind of work?” I said, “I don't care what kind of work. I just want to be in radio.” And he said, “Okay. Well, good to see ya.” Obviously, he went back and so they came out and said, well we have an opening for what they called in those days as a mail boy, which was just, you know. You did all the errands, you went to advertising agencies and picked up commercials. We had a studio downtown, which is now the Book Cadillac or the Weston Hotel – used to be the Sheridan Cadillac. The station was WKMH and it carried the Tigers games. I thought, “This is cool” because this is just right where I want to be. So, I got a job as a mail boy and I started working there and eventually we changed from WKMH to Keener Radio. I think it was 1964. To a top 40 Hits radio station. They really wanted to make more money, so we changed to that and by this time I had progressed into what they called the Production Department – putting together the commercials. We would get them on reel-to-reel tape and you had to put them together to put them on what in those days were cartridges. Now everything's digital so it's so much better. I wish I was still with it; it's so much easier. Editing – we used to edit with a razor blade and tape. Now you just edit digitally with a keyboard. It's fantastic. Anyway, in 1965, I believe it was, Dick Purtan came to Detroit. And I would make extra money by staying after work answering the phones until ten o'clock – until about 11 o'clock at night. Kids were calling in making requests. They needed somebody to answer the phones. So Dick originally came to Detroit and worked ten to one that night. So, he would be on the air and I would – he had the studio door open. I'd be at the switchboard and I'd say, “Hey. Line number two kid wants to hear The Beatles blah blah blah.” So on some slow nights, I would say, “There's some weird guy on line three and it would be me. And I would say – you know, I would get on and say, “Mr. Purtan, I'm from Taylor and I'd like to hear you play any Country West -” anyway, he found out it was me. [laughter] So we started doing skits together. At that time Mary Poppins was very popular. The first Mary Poppins movies had come out. So I played Mary Poppins' mother and father. [laughter] Mom and Pop Poppins. And he would say, “You know, we have a report from California. Ma Poppins, Mary's mother, is on the phone and I'd get on the phone, “Hey Dick. How are ya? Wonderful to talk to ya.” He says, “How's your husband?” “Oh, Pa?” And it would be, Hey hey – you know, some old guy. So we started doing things like this. And so then our morning guy got fired at Keener and they asked Dick, they said, Look we'd like to – because he was very popular and very funny. And they said, How would you like to do the morning shows? He said, “If I can take him as my producer.” So I said, “Yeah, this is great.” So for 17 years we worked together at Keener, WXYZ, and for four years at CKLW, I did all the voices and we collaborated on the comedy. We wrote skits and everything and had a great career as far as – and the sportscasting world passed me by and went out the door and, although I'm a member of the Detroit's Sportscaster Association, but that left. I didn't do any of that at all. [laughter] So I was – it was a job that I couldn't wait to get to every single day. And I used to give talks to high schools on career days and I would say to the kids in the classroom, “How many of you here in the classroom have parents that don't like what they do for a living?” And about half of them would raise their hands. And I would say, “You know what? No matter what you do, like it. Like what you do because if – I mean, some people have to work at jobs that they don't like. They have to. They have no choice. They don't have an education, they don't have whatever it is. But find something that you really like and you enjoy, even if it takes you a while to get to that point that you have to do a lousy job. Like, when I was the mail boy, it wasn't a very glamorous job at all, but it was leading up, I was hoping – because I got to know the people, I got to know the equipment, guys taught me how to record things and I loved it. I couldn't wait to get back to work every day. I mean, I'd be in my car and think of something and then – this was before we had portable recorders and everything – scribble something down that was an idea for the bit we could some other time. And then I left – Dick left CKLW. I stayed for another year, then I went to WOMC where I was there 23 years.

NL: When did you first have your on-air show?

TR: I first had an on-air show at WXYZ Radio. I was producing Dick's show and they needed a guy on Sunday nights to do midnight to six. Just one night a week and I jumped at the chance. They said, “Hey, you want to do this?” I said, “Yeah! Oh, gosh yes!” And the first time I was – oh, I'll tell you this story. The first time I was ever on the air by myself was in 1966, I think. The Beatles came here and our afternoon guy was a guy named Bob Green and he was in Chicago for the Beatles concert, flying back to Detroit with The Beatles because he was doing a documentary and the plane was delayed, so he was to be on the air, but he was delayed. And so, I said to somebody, I had to call my boss and I said – we had this tape going. They had these big reel-to-reel tapes of people, of Bob doing for his first part of the show and I just ran he tape. He had all the music on it. I just sat there, pressed a button, the tape ran. Each reel was an hour long. We had three hours’ worth. And I just sat there and all of a sudden I'm going, We're getting down to an hour. I only have an hour left. I just called my boss and I said, “I haven't heard from Bob or anything and he said – he called me back and said, “Their plane's been delayed.” I said, “What do you want me – I mean, what am I supposed to do?” “Go on the air.” He said, “You can – he's only going to be a half hour late,” by the time they arrived at Metro [Airport]. “Just go on the air and play music.” [laughter] Hey, alright! You know? So I did and I did some of the characters that we'd been doing on the Purtan Show and a half hour later he go there and he went on the –  but it was the first time I was on ever by myself. Then I did the Sunday night show once a week. I would do Sunday night, just, you know, playing music and stuff like that.

NL: What kind of records did you play?

TR: Well, we were in the sixties, seventies by that time and it was rock. You know, The Beatles, the Beach Boys, stuff like that. [in a mocking tone] Really, true music; not the crap they play today. [laughter]

NL: What's your favorite part about working on-air?

TR: The fun. It's completely gone today. There is, in my opinion, in this reporter's opinion – [laughter] – it's not fun anymore. I listen to radio today and I search for radio stations to listen to. And I understand my humor and young people today, their humor is completely different than mine and that's fine because mine was different than my parents' humor was different when I grew up. But, it is a dying industry in respect to most young people, if you ask a young person today – and I don't know what your answer would be – “What's your favorite radio station?” A lot of them will say, I don't listen to radio. “Why not?” “Because you got to listen to the whole song.” [laughter] “Well, what's wrong with that?” “I don't want to listen to the – what if I don't like it?” I say, “Well, where do you get your music?” They bring out either their phone, or tablet, or an iPod, and they say, “I have all my music on here.” I say, “Okay, so it must [unintelligible].” He says, “I'll listen to a minute of my favorite tune and then go to another one and listen to a minute of that. I get tired of it and go on to another one.” And not everybody's like that, but I will say 80 percent of the young people I talk to will say, “Yeah, I don't listen to radio. That's –“ And I said, “Why? What would make you listen?” “Well, I occasionally listen to this person.” And I said, “Why do you listen to them?” “Because they're funny and they talk. I don't listen to radio for music; I listen to it for entertainment. And if I find somebody that is on the radio that I like, I like what they talked about, they make me laugh, I don't care if they play any music.” But radio stations today are like, Oh no, we have to – and my last days in radio, it was you can't talk for more than ten seconds. And you have to play, you know, five records in a row and maybe you could come in over the long intro of something and say, “Hey, come on out. We're going to have a contest.” Blah blah blah. But keep it under ten seconds. Then you play eight commercials in a row and that's the biggest turn off to young people in anything is commercials. They don't want to hear them. They will stick through them if you do them. If you do them live, which I always was a big proponent of, even when I was on the radio. I would say to clients, “Pay the extra money. Have me do it live because a) you'll get more than 60 seconds. Always. Because I would go all – we had one time an awning company advertise, so I went out to – I said, “I'd like to go out and see how you make these things.” So I went out. I met the receptionist, you know, Lily the receptionist and I met her and I watched how they did everything and I said, “Okay.” Blah blah blah. So when I started doing their commercials, I said, “The Ajax Awning Company, when you go out there, you'll meet Lily, the receptionist. She's a nice lady. And then here's how they do it,” and you made it like you weren't reading a commercial; you were telling people what a good product it was. And I've always been, to this day, have always said that that's the one because it doesn't sound like you've come out of a record and you're gonna go do a commercial and if you start talking about it and making it human, then they don't turn you off right away. They go, Okay. And they listen and maybe make it funny and make a joke about something. And then you have to go into – well, we recorded a commercial. And we got to a point where we were playing eight and nine commercials in a row and I kept saying, “What a turn off. How do you expect to get ratings because they push that button as soon as that happens; they're gone somewhere else hoping the next station that they get there's not somebody playing eight commercials. And that was the big – my big knock – on Howard Stern was he did all of his commercials at once. He played 16 in a row. And I thought, the advertiser – the guy in the fifteenth commercial must be out of his mind saying – and then, people were smart enough to know that they only had one commercial break an hour, so they knew when that came, Well, we'll come back in 20 minutes and listen to the rest of the show. And when Purtan and I first started working in radio, we would do things like – we didn't have – in those days, you didn't have to play them. I mean, maybe you had six commercials. And so Dick would say, “Okay, coming back, we're going to have – some character I played, Captain Happy, which was a character that sold things to little kids then he could make money, you know. “Oh, Dick, you're going to love this one. I got an idea for empty beer cases for little boys and girls.” And Dick would say, “Alright, coming up, Captain Happy will be here.” We'd play three commercials, which people could sit through, do the bit, play the next three and go do a record. So the people didn't – they liked the show well enough to say, Well, we can sit through three commercials. And then they'd – we came back, did what we wanted to do, played three more and went into a song. Hopefully people would like the song and they would stick with it. But we only played one – we would, in an hour, we would play six songs in an hour. That's not, you know – then they wanted ten, 12 songs. This is years and years later, but going to work and having fun – fun was the – you talked to – and we had a tremendous amount of people that would call in and they – and that's the secret. Let your audience be the show because you'd get funny people, little kids who call in. We had a little kid call in. I think it was so cute and he was trying to talk like an adult – [laughter] – and this is an honest-to-god true story. We're both listening to this little kid and Dick says, “Let me ask you something.” Now, he sounds like a little kid. “How old are you?” And there's this pause and he says, “21.” Dick said, “21, huh?” He said to the kid, “What year were you born?” And the kid said, “I don't remember, it was so long ago.” [laughter] I mean, it was things like that that was just hysterical. And the people help make the show. And they don't do that anymore.

NL: It sounds like the personality and the pacing in radio has just changed.

TR: Oh, completely.

NL: Tremendously.

TR: Completely. There is no personality anymore. I mean, after ten o'clock, I mean, some stations still allow a morning show to have two and three people on a morning show. And they have fun, but after ten o'clock, it's just music, music, music and that's basically it.

NL: When did you notice that shift was industry-wide?

TR: It happened – it started to happen in like 2005. I left in 2007. At 2006 especially it got – they brought in a consultant to our station and basically said to me – I was doing the afternoon show, Dick was doing the morning at WOMC and I was doing the afternoons. All our ratings were great and they bring in this guy who's never programmed an – we were an oldies station at this time.

LW: Right.

TR: Playing sixties and seventies songs. And he just came in and he said, “Ten seconds. Don't talk for more – except for Dick; he can talk longer. The rest of you guys, I don't want to hear any chatter.” I had a sidekick, a gal, who was my producer and she was very funny. Had a real Brenda Vaccaro – I don't know if you know who that is. She's an actor – real Brenda Vaccaro-ish type voice and very funny and didn't mean to be funny a lot of the times, but was funny. “I don't want to hear her on the air again.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “I don't like her voice.” I said, “But everybody” - I mean, then we would get emails from people saying, “Why isn't Mindy on anymore? Why don't we hear from her?” I'd show it to our general manager. “Well, I'll talk to Gary.” He was the – and then eventually, it's just keep playing the music, keep playing the commercials. I said, “This is the end.” Maybe it will come back someday. Maybe, but with technology today and people not, you know, watching network television as much as they used to – and I blame it all on you Millennials.[laughter] It's what they – they want everything now. They want it right now and that's why a lot of these shows on cable you can stream. You can sit down and watch House of Cards, the whole season at once instead of watching it every week on television. It's the ease now. I want it now. I want it right away. I don't want to wait.

NL: And podcasts are sort of the same way for radio. You get a lot of personalities.

TR: Yes.

NL: People who have those, what you describe as a classic radio personality and show take that to a podcast.

TR: Oh, sure.

NL: Because it’s the same thing.

TR: And you know what? If you could do – in fact, Dick Purtan does a podcast every week and it’s usually a half hour to 35, 40 minutes. And he does whatever he wants. There’s nobody saying, “Will you” you know, “hurry up” because there’s no commercials. I think he did sell some to a friend of his at a car dealership just to pay some of the price. But, you do what you want. You can do anything you want and you can do it any time you want. His is always on a Friday so he does it maybe during the week and sends it to a guy who edits it down and he puts it on his website. And so you can listen and, in other words, if I – you don’t have to listen from 9 to 9:30 every Friday. You can listen any time. And that’s the beauty of it. People say, “Well, I hadn’t listened to this. I’m going to go and listen now.” And they’re all archived so you can listen to a bunch of them if you missed two or three of them. That’s the neat thing about them.

NL: Back tracking a bit, early on in your career, could you tell me about where were you living in 1967? Was that –

TR: I was living on Fairfield Avenue across the street from the University of Detroit.

NL: And how do you remember first hearing about or noticing about the violence and disturbance at Twelfth Street?

TR: In 1966 I joined the Michigan Air National Guard and we were stationed at Metropolitan Airport. That’s where our base was. I was in personnel and we had a group of planes, jet planes, that our unit, the 191st Combat Support Unit, was reconnaissance. Our planes took pictures. They flew, the jets, flew over supposedly enemy sites and they had – they were strictly – they were not fighter planes, although they were armed, but they were strictly to take pictures. That was our group’s job. So, in ’67, it was a Sunday afternoon. I was out at the lake with a bunch of friends in Brighton, Michigan and somebody, late in the afternoon, said, “There’s big trouble in Detroit.” And I said, “What’s going on?” And they said, “I don’t know, but there’s, you know, fires and everything,” and the Tigers were playing at home that day, as a matter of fact. And I understood from Ernie Harwell, who I become a friend with, that they were told not to mention anything on the broadcast. You could see this, from Tiger Stadium, you could see the smoke and everything. So anyway, I said, “I better go home because I’m living” – my neighborhood around U of D at the time was a changing neighborhood and I thought, well, my mother and my aunt are home and I better go home. So I drove home and I got off the Lodge Freeway at Livernois and there was a place called the Star Furniture Company on fire and I drove passed and I got home and I said, to my parents – my mother and my aunt, “What’s going on?” And they said, Well, I guess there’s big trouble in Downtown and I said, “Well, it’s over on Livernois.” Then the phone rang and it was the National Guard saying, “You need to get your fatigue uniform and you got to get to the base and we’re going to go through some brief training.” I said, “I got to go. I’m being activated.” So anyway, they said, “We’ll be alright. We have enough neighbors.” And so I went out and we did this thing at the base on how to rule crowds, you know. We were all given a rifle and then they showed us how to make a V and keep the crowds, if anything. So then we came home and then the next night got another call that said, “Alright you’re officially activated. You will show up at the base. Be here at 11 o’clock in the morning. You’re going to work from noon to midnight. You work 12 hour shifts. We’re going to deploy you downtown Detroit.” So I’m thinking, I’m in personnel. [laughter] I mean, I’m at the typewriter. And so we get to the base and they had all these DSR at the time, now it’s DOT, I think, the buses, or Smart. But at the time it was called the Department of Streets and Railways, DSR buses. They were all in our base and we’re all in uniform and everything, so I get down there and we’re all, what they call, mustered up. Everybody’s lined up according to department and everything and were explained, “You’re all going to be put on buses. You’re all going to be given and M1 Carbine with no bullets.” [laughter] And so we said, No bullets? “Do you guys know how to handle a rioting crowd? We don’t need anybody shooting people.” I said to [laughter] another guy, “They’ll be shooting us. What are we going to do, go bang?” [laughter] And so they load us on this bus – on these buses – and I had to get on the bus and I’m sitting right behind the driver’s area. In those days, buses had two seats that faced across and every other one the rest were, you know, you look towards the front, if you catch my drift. So, an officer gets on and he puts down this box full of magazines. Now, magazines are what you store bullets in. They’re long, cylindrical things that you shove in to your gun and you can keep firing until all the bullets – that’s what you call a magazine. He puts all these magazines down and we’re driving downtown and he’s telling us what to do and blah blah blah blah. “Here’s what’s going to” – and as he wanders away, I looked down and I reached down and grabbed a magazine and put it in my pocket thinking, I’m not going to be standing down there with nothing. And so I felt this is against the law, but anyways, this is 50 years ago. Let them come and get me. [laughter] Anyway, so we go Downtown and they stationed our group in front of a place, which I don’t – it may still be there – called Hot Sam’s. It was on Gratiot Avenue and it was a discount clothing store. And we pulled 12 hour shifts, just standing there with guns over our shoulders and people yelling at us and every once in a while, you’d see a truck of real Army guys go by. I mean, they had loaded guns and everything and they’d wave and all this other stuff. And we were just a show of force. They said, “that’s the reason you’re here is a show of force that we have enough people that can make it look like we mean business”. So that went on for three or four days and we would – I’d come home, be off 12, on 12, off 12, on 12. And nothing ever happened. We never had a problem where we were. No shots were ever fired – of course they couldn’t [laughter] –except the man with the bullets. [laughter] So that was it and basically when it was over with, they said, Okay you guys are done. Turn in your rifles and eventually I thought it was such a neat rifle because when I went to basic training I used the same thing – I bought one. A friend of mine had a gun shop. I said, “Can I buy an M1 Carbine?” He said, “Yeah, I can get ya one.” And so we did it. I still have it. I have an M1 Carbine. Off the record, I still have the thing. One the record, I gave it back to him. [laughter]

LW: So you have a souvenir.

TR: I have the clip of the bullets.

LW: Wow. What was racial makeup of the unit that you worked with that just had unloaded guns?

TR: You mean, our unit that went down?

LW: Yeah.

TR: We were all, basically 90 percent white guys.

LW: Okay.

TR: Yeah. There were occasionally – I mean, there were black guys in our unit. But not very many.

LW: Do you remember any conversations or interactions with them?

TR: No. Nobody really – I mean, everybody was – Oh. [laughter] Here's the best story of all: After the first night – so it's midnight; we're off-duty at midnight – they load us on this DSR bus. We are going down West Grand Boulevard towards I think the Edsel Ford Freeway and the bus driver's black and he's a DSR bus driver. He's a civilian. He's carrying probably 70 guys, which he doesn't realize don't have any bullets, but we have guns. And we're going down West Grand Boulevard and we hear pop pop, pop pop, pop pop pop. Gunfire. And the officer on the bus says, “Everybody down!” So we all go off our seats and lie on the ground except for this poor buy driving the bus. And he hits the gas and we must be going 80 miles an hour down West Grand Boulevard.

NL: Wow!

TR: He's driving this bus like crazy and I'm thinking, What a poor guy! This guy's — he’s a civilian! And he doesn't know – they weren't shooting at us but we don't know that.

LW: Right.

TR: And he has no idea of that and he's thinking, What am I doing here? I've got all these soldiers in the back and I'm the only one sitting up driving the bus. And finally we got onto the  freeway and the officer said, “Okay, everybody get back up. We're out of danger.” And I'm thinking, What a poor guy. [laughter] You know?

LW: Yeah. Wow.

TR: It was an amazing time. I grew up here all my life; I never saw anything like it when I watched the news. A friend of mine who built me a bed, Tom DeLisle, which I don't know – he was a reporter then. He's got great stories about what happened and what it was like being down there. He was young like myself at that time too.

LW: So what did you see when your unit was –

TR: Nothing. We didn't have any – we were lucky we didn't – other than people driving by in cars, yelling at us, “Go home!” You know? And all this other stuff. We didn't see any violence or anything. And then I'm sure that they knew where they put us and we weren't going to be – I mean, if you were down in some of the really ghetto areas where the fires were and the shootings were, they weren't going to put us there because we hadn't no training for that sort of thing. The guys who knew what they were doing were down there.

NL: Could you see those from a distance?

TR: No, because basically being right in the Downtown area, nothing ever happened really down there. I mean, Hudson's was behind us and nothing –

NL: Right. The buildings would block your views.

TR: Right. We were also called up for the Martin Luther King riots, which was a couple years later.

LW: Later, yeah. What was that like?

TR: We were stationed at a Michigan Bell Telephone Company's substation on Fort Street. It was an office building but it also had a lot of equipment and the theory was, were people going to try to take over utilities? They put us in and I remember they said to me, “You're going to go up – there's a door to the roof up there. You open this door, you go out on the roof of this five-story building.” I said, “Yeah.” [laughter] He said, “The door's locked. You guard the door.” [laughter] So here I am, I'm like, “Does somebody [knocking] knock?” [laughter] You know, what am I supposed to do? “Just call us downstairs and we'll have somebody.” So I sat for like six hours and then I get an hour off and come back for six hours watching the door and that was only for a couple days. Then that blew over, so we didn't have too much trouble with that.

LW: Were you still working at –

TR: At that radio station?

LW: Yeah. You were still on the radio!

TR: Yeah, well I had – obviously they had to give me the time off. I didn't call in or anything and give – you know, my commanding officer said, “Don't just be talking about – “ because he knew I was on the radio. “Let's not be talking about this on the radio.” I said, “Okay.”

LW: Was your producers – what instructions did they give you?

TR: For the radio?

LW: Yeah.

TR: Oh, no. It was just Dick and I and so I just said I can't do anything. You know, I can't call ya and tell ya. He would just say, “Tom's in the National Guard and his unit's being called up and he's not here because he's on duty.”

LW: Oh! So they would say – so Dick Purtan would say that on the air?

TR: Oh, sure! Oh, yeah. Well, people wondered why, you know? And a lot of – at that time, a lot of – we didn't try to be too funny because the city was under siege; it was a bad time, so you don't want to make jokes about a whole lot of things and you just try to – he did a lot of interviews with city officials and stuff like that. You try to keep it low key. Something like that. You don't want to try to joke about it too much. You don't talk about that at all, but the levity kind of took a back seat there.

LW: Mmhmm.

NL: Did you have any inkling before the violence started in July as to the tensions in the city and the climate?

TR: No. Not at all. None at all. I mean, I knew there were problems and we knew that the inner city had problems, but never that they would escalate to this extent. I mean, I grew up in the city all my life. When I went to high school I was in a little Catholic high school and it wasn't until, oh I would say, my junior year that we got black kids in the school. And not very many. I mean, they would do us just to – say, two percent. And it eventually, obviously by the time the school closed, there were a lot more because the neighborhood had completely changed. But I – see I've lived with black people all my life in show business, in sports, in everything. It never has really – I mean, I read about things in the south and I have met kids from the south when I was in basic training. Kids from Georgia and everything. Oh boy. And I'm thinking, Wow, I live with this all the time and it's no big deal to me. I have always thought the prejudice would wane in this country. After all these years, I am really kind of like [unintelligible]. And growing up in Detroit, you kind of think, “What, are you kidding me? They're just your neighbors. What are you people so upset about?” But I guess it hasn't. I guess it has – you know, still there are those pockets of this country that just can't take it. They just – it's been engraved in their livelihoods. Doesn't bother me. I'm just – I'm really like, Come on.

LW: Right.

NL: What were the first things you noticed after those nights? After you had been called off duty and the Army had been –

TR: When we went back to normal?

NL: Yeah. After it went back to normal, what differences did you notice?

TR: I didn't really notice a whole lot of difference because of my relationship with my friends who were black. I didn't, you know, there wasn't this big “Oh, my god. Thank god it's over,” which we did thank god it was over. But nobody said, “Oh, my life's going to be completely different now.” It just – I mean, that was '67. You had problems later, as they say, in the King riots. And then after that we didn't have any major problems. Colman ran the city under his thumb. You did what he did, what he told you to do. [laughter] I guess he was taking in a lot of money on the side, but they all loved him and you had to have a black mayor. You just – you really did at that point. That was a smart move.

NL: Where – the station you were working at at the time in '67 – where, what part of town was that located in?

TR: Dearborn.

NL: Okay. So that was also removed from –

TR: And it was also very white.

NL: Right.

TR: If you remember Orville Hubbard –

NL: Sure.

TR: Okay. Well –

NL: I read a story about him last week.

TR: Yes! Yes. Yeah, the statue?

NL: Yeah.

LW: Mmhmm.

TR: Yeah, the station was in Dearborn, which was not too far away from the city. I mean it was pretty close to the city, but I don't think they had any problems. Not that I know of anyway.

NL: Historians and people talking about these events generally refer to them as the riots of 1967, the riots. Do you think that is an accurate word to describe that week in July or –

TR: Yeah.

NL: – or would you say something else.

TR: No, it was a civil unrest, which is, the showbiz word is “riot.” That's – and some people would say it was a civil unrest. It was a riot. It was. From accounts from my friend Tom that, you know, what he saw down there, he was much closer than I was because he was reporting. And actually, he and a buddy of his – and we all three of us became great friends – they were not reporters, they were, you know, intern-type guys. They were copy boys, but were sent down – you got to go. He'll tell ya a great story about a reporter friend of his who drove down to get pictures and left his car there and then he came back to the Free Press and he said that, “Tom, you got to go get my car. I left it in an alley on Twelfth and something.” So he and his buddy went back down to get the guy's car and that was left was a burned out shell-like I think. I think that's what – and it was a new Pontiac something or other. So they brought back a mirror and he said, “Here's your car. Here's what we found left of your car.” [laughter] They were more in – and Tom was more in to what was going on right there. He saw more than we did. Although I was Downtown, but like I said, nothing happened where we were.

LW: Right.

NL: Do you remember – did any of your peers and colleagues at your station and the other stations around the city – at what point, if at all, did they start speaking candidly about the events and really reporting? You said that you weren't supposed to do that at first.

TR: Well, we weren't supposed to – we downed the levity of the show. Dick did. He downed the levity of it. It wasn't, you know – our show was completely humor. Put on calls, everything was funny; we took nothing seriously. At this point, we took everything seriously. Nothing – we didn't – even if it was something that was funny, but not concerning the riots, it was kind of like, “This is not the time.” It was like the day Kennedy died. I was working at the radio station and I was the mail boy and I will never forget driving down the Southfield Freeway to go back to the station. After delivering something, I hear on our station that John Kennedy's been shot; he's been killed. I drive back to the station, they completely stop playing rock and roll music. They went to all nice music with a lot of newscast. And I'll never forget, I'm standing in the newsroom, this teletype – and I could kill myself for not doing this – a teletype comes across – we used teletype machines in those days - “President Kennedy is dead.” And I ripped it off and took it into the newsmen. I thought, I should have saved it. I should have saved it and framed it, you know years later you never think of those – as a kid you say [unintelligible]. Take it in there, I said, “The president's dead!” But then that whole day we completely abandoned what we were known for, our rock and roll music, and just played nice music and had a lot of news reports.

LW: Did you do that during the riots too?

TR: No. No, we still kept the music the same. We still kept informing people a lot and still did shows, but we toned it down.

NL: And when would you say you got back to your normal style?

TR: Oh, probably as soon as – probably two or three days later. I mean, when things started to quiet down and control was taken and the civil leaders, civic leaders, took over and stuff like that. And we went back to it. There's no use prolonging, you know, being morbid about it. Let's get back to normal life. Hey, life goes on. We've got to deal with it and it's been dealt with and let's move on.

NL: Do you have any other specific memories of that time?

TR: No, not really because it was, you know, it's 50 years ago.


NL: That's why we're doing this.

TR: You know what? The things that stuck out in my mind were the bus trip there and back and you were a little scared because – but you had people around you. I didn't stand on the corner by myself; there were two of us there and then the next block there were two other guys that we all knew and we had supervision in the area if anything were to happen. I was never really, like, frightened about it, but the irony of not being armed, it was, years later I would say, “What if, like today, it would be nothing I think for a carload of people to drive by and shoot at you.” Those days you didn't have that. You had people that were mad and looted and things like that but you had a very small percentage of people who might shoot and they were probably high on something anyways. Today, you literally would have a gang of people drive by with the National Guard guys standing there and open fire on them. I got out at the right time. [laughter]

LW: Yeah.

NL: Sounds like it. Well thank you for sharing with us today.

LW: Thank you.

TR: I hope I helped you.

NL: Most definitely.

LW: Absolutely.



John Kennedy
Dick Purton

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oral history, Michigan National Guard, 1967




“Tom Ryan, July 20th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed July 3, 2022,

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