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Storied Detroit bar owner 'Honest' John Thompson has died

Melody Baetens Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

A saloonkeeper known for his big personality and acts of generosity, John Thompson of Honest John’s bar in Detroit has died at age 66. 

His nephew, Mike Kiewicz, confirmed that Thompson died July 10 of congestive heart failure in Cape Coral, Florida, where he lived after leaving the Detroit area in April 2019. Kiewicz’s wife Laurie had been caring for the widowed Thompson closely for about a year, and was with him when he passed. 

John Thompson of Honest John's with one of the bar's favorites, the Black Label 40 oz. Photos taken at the bar on February 1, 2005.

Endlessly persuasive with his raspy voice, Thompson oversaw a series of charity events under the loose umbrella of what he called the Honest John’s Shakedown Society.

Among them was the annual Dipps for Toys, in which hundreds of people would race into the Detroit River in the frigid heart of winter and pay for the privilege.

“He cared so much about that neighborhood around the old bar,” said Kiewicz. “In the first Saturday in December we would all jump in the river and we’d get people to sponsor us to do it, and all of that money went to buying toys for the three schools that were around the old bar."

Having purchased and wheedled hundreds of toys, Thompson would then recruit customers to come to his overrun house to wrap them.

He once said he couldn’t count the number of bicycles he had provided for children in Detroit … and with his bad luck, a kid riding one of them would probably run him over.

"I buy a brand-new bar, debt free," he noted, "and my house burns down."

Thompson owned and operated Honest John's for more than a quarter century at two Detroit locations. The first was off Jefferson near the Belle Isle bridge, and the second on Selden just off Cass where a bright, blue neon sign that says "sobriety sucks" still hangs behind the bar. 

John Thompson gives the command for the troops to hit the water. Honest John's annual charity dip Dec. 5, 2004 in Detroit, MI.

“This is a black-white-gay-straight-young-old bar,” he said in a 1991 Detroit News story in which Thompson referred to himself as “a mother hen with an attitude.” 

“I run this place with an iron fist,” he said in those early years when there was no brunch food like the second location, but only hot dogs and White Castle burgers. Then in his mid-30s, he reportedly let the narcotics police tap the pay phone and put a sign up saying as much to dissuade drug pushers. 

"John was one of those larger-than-life characters that make up a city like Detroit. He told a lot of crazy stories, and I think many, probably not all, were true," said his friend Marty Fischhoff, a former Detroit News editor, who attested to Thompson's unorthodox but generous ways. "John went out of his way to make everyone feel at home. I saw him toss one of his regulars out on his ear for mouthing off to one of the local people. There weren’t, and still, aren’t many places like that in Detroit."

Later into the 1990s the eclectic, kind-of-broken jukebox at Honest John's Bar and No Grill, as it was called then, was named the best in the country by the book "Jukebox America." True to Thompson's style, he took advantage of the machine's fame and raffled off the old record player for charity. 

Thompson sold Honest John’s at the very end of 2014 to brothers John and Dave Kwiatkowski, telling The Detroit News then that he was stepping down to care for his wife Irene, who was ill. She died in 2018. 

A few years before the Kwiatkowskis took over, he had arranged what turned out to be a problematic sale to a pair of employees. An alcoholic, he said then that he could no longer be so close to liquor — and to the neighborhood where he’d had a perilous childhood.

"I’ve been battling drinking my whole life," he told The Detroit News. "I can only say 'no' so much."

Making things worse, he said, was his history with the tavern that became the second Honest John's. He told stories when he bought it about his mother, a prostitute, turning tricks there when it was a dive called Elmer's.

He made it sound like a triumph to hold the deed, but ultimately, he said, "there are too many demons. I went though my whole life blocking stuff out. The last four or five years, stuff has come back to me I can’t even believe."

(caption info) -- John Thompson, left, and his wife Irene are seen in this file photo Sunday July 19, 2009, near Honest John's in Detroit's Cass Corridor.

As promised, the new owners — who also run Sugar House and Grandma Bob’s pizzeria in Corktown, as well as Wright & Co. and others — kept the nature of the bar in line with what Thompson had built, offering all-day breakfast, late night food and a good selection of drinks at decent prices. 

Honest John’s is still open daily 9 a.m.-midnight at 488 Selden in Detroit. 

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens