John Thompson, the gruff but heart-of-gold former owner of Detroit’s Honest John’s Bar with the familiar question mark in the name, has died.
Thompson was 66 and lived in Cape Coral, Florida. He died July 10 in hospice care of congestive heart failure, according to his niece Laurie Kiewicz, who was with him when he died.
His nephew Mike Kiewicz, Laurie’s husband, remembers Thompson as having a heart of gold.
“The amount of toys he passed out at elementary schools around the Field Street location was tremendous. We’d have people who frequented the bar wrapping for a week,” Kiewicz said, referring to the bar’s original location on Field Street at East Jefferson Avenue.
“He was an integral part of that neighborhood and brought so much joy to so many people.”
Kiewicz said Thompson was into kayaking and along with his late wife, Irene, bred and sold bouvier dogs. Thompson had a bike rental and kayak rental business he named after beloved bouviers, Agnes and Rollo’s, respectively.
Described as charitable but, at times, gruff, Thompson was known for organizing many cleverly named charitable events that benefited Detroit kids and communities.
One of the most widely known charitable was the Dipps for Toys. For the annual winter event, people dressed in costumes, often silly and wacky, headed to Belle Isle to take a dip in the chilly Detroit River.
Proceeds from that event would be spent on presents for Detroit kids at the holidays. For Thompson’s postcard moon shoot, people would pay to be in the picture, stand in front of the bar and moon the camera.
It was referred to, Kwiecz said, as “Moonshot grin and bare so the churches can share it.”
He did charitable work for homeless people, served Thanksgiving dinner to needy people, and raised funds for church programs.
Through his Honest?John’s Shakedown Society, he raised funds to fix up basketball courts on Detroit’s east side.
Honest John’s Bar and No Grill (because it didn’t have a kitchen) has been described as a Detroit landmark bar. Thompson owned the bar for more than 25 years.
Its first location was on Field Street, on the corner of Jefferson Avenue, near Belle Isle. The spot was known as an eclectic place as well as a hole-in-the wall type of joint.
It was a hangout for a diverse crowd, drawing Detroiters and suburbanites alike. The business moved to its current location on Selden Street in Midtown in 2002.
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Thompson sold the bar in 2014 to brothers Dave and John Kwiatkowski, owners of Wright & Co., in Detroit and Sugar House in Corktown.
Allan Lengel, veteran journalist and founder of Deadline Detroit, who also worked at the Detroit News, was a bartender at Honest John’s on Field Street. Lengel worked there for 11 months during the newspaper strike.
“He was a wild guy, but had a big heart,” Lengel said. “He was great to work for and took in a lot of the strikers to work during the strike.”
Lengel described him as tough and seemingly fearless.
Thompson was known to drink and, Lengel said, fell on and off the wagon.
“I think he enjoyed owning a bar and enjoyed having his clubhouse,” Lengel said.
Scott Martelle, editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and a former Detroit News staff writer, also worked as a bartender for Thompson during the strike. Martelle is also the author of “Detroit: A Biography,” ($24.95, Chicago Review Press.) The book includes a chapter on John Thompson.
“He was very mercurial,” Martelle said by phone Wednesday. “You weren’t a friend of John’s unless you’ve been thrown out of his bar at one point or another.”
While working for Thompson during the strike, Martelle said, he fired him for not serving a “scab” newspaper worker.
“He was a character, very bright, very shrewd and loved a good gag,” Martelle said. “On Easter, he did a barbecue bunny roast to raise money.”
The second location, the former Elmer’s Bar on Selden Street, was closer to where Thompson grew up – the Cass Corridor.