William Giardin, August 9th, 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. We are in Detroit, Michigan. The date is August 9th, 2016. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with Mr. William Girardin. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
WG: Yes, I was born at Henry Ford Hospital, August 16th, 1940.
HS: Well, happy early birthday to you. Where did you grow up?
WG: Basically the west side. Coyle Avenue, it’s off Plymouth Road, and I believe Evergreen. When I was 8, or 7, 7 really, we moved out to Livonia, and that’s where I spent until I got married. Livonia is most of the memories I have. My father was a Detroit Diesel timekeeper and he put in thirty years with them. Before that he was at Ford Motor Company as a timekeeper. He was at the Battle of the Overpass. The funny part about it, my wife’s father was at the Battle of the Overpass, but on the other side of the bridge!
HS: For any listeners who might not know what that is, could you explain what the Battle of the Overpass was?
WG: Basically it was UAW organizing, and they were organizing out in front of Ford Rouge Plant, at their main entrance. People could get over the railroad tracks by an overpass to get into the building. Of course, the union organizers were on the outside and Bennett’s police (Ford Security) were on the inside. They came out and beat up Walter Reuther and a few of the other big wigs of the union. This was in 1937.
HS: What did your mother do?
WG: Basically, she was a home mother. She worked later in life. She ran a Detroit Times substation for about ten years.
HS: In Livonia, was Livonia integrated at all at that time?
HS: Strictly white?
WG: It was basically still rural at that time. My joke is that my first TV show that we saw on our TV was the Howdy-Doody show, on my birthday in 1948. That’s why I know. It was a quiet time out there. Didn’t pay much attention to Detroit, although I gotta admit, we would take the bus down Plymouth Road to Grand River, Grand River down to downtown, and do shopping at J.L. Hudson’s. I remember that mainly because we always went downstairs to the clearance areas. That's about it.
HS: Being rural, were you close with your neighbors in Livonia at all? Or was it more spread out?
WG: No, we were in a subdivision called Rosedale Gardens. It was about a quarter mile, eight blocks, and one side was the [unintelligible], the other side were the [unintelligible]. Then a few friends, my friends, my sister’s friends around the area, but that’s about it.
HS: You said you lived there until you got married?
WG: Yep. ’65.
HS: ’65. And then where did you move after that?
WG: Adrian, Michigan.
HS: Adrian, Michigan. That’s a bit of a hike.
WG: By the way, that’s in ’65. I graduated from Adrian in ’62. From college.
HS: So you went to Adrian for college and I presume you met your wife there?
WG: Nope, met her back here.
HS: Met her back here! Okay.
WG: After I graduated, joined a Catholic youth group of the over 21 to 35 age, back in those days.
HS: So what they would call millennials these days?
WG: Yeah. Definitely what you would call them today. The joy of that group was that they ran dances at Jesu Parish up on 6 Mile, right across from U of D. Every Friday night, we’d get two, three, four hundred kids dancing there.
HS: Wow. That sounds like a lot of fun.
WG: Oh, it was. It was a good time. Of course, we did our own monthly activities. I met my wife at a picnic at Camp Dearborn. I saw fireworks when I kissed her the first time. That was July 4th, 1963.
HS: So metaphorical fireworks and real fireworks? That’s great, that’s wonderful. So why Adrian?
WG: Quite frankly, Eastern wouldn’t accept me and Adrian would, so I went there for four years.
HS: And then when you moved there in ’65, what was the—
WG: It was a job, I was working for GM as an accountant. They were opening a brand-new plant in Tecumseh, Michigan. I volunteered to go there.
HS: How long did you stay in Adrian?
WG: Three years. In ’68, we moved back to St. Clair Shores.
HS: All right. Moving into the ‘60s, after you had moved to Adrian, did you spend any time in Detroit?
WG: No, not really. I wasn’t a sport nut or anything else like that, so there was no reason—my dad did take me down to a couple Tiger’s games, down on Michigan Avenue and Trumbull, but that’s all I remember from those days.
HS: Working for GM, you didn’t come to their office in Detroit at all?
WG: Nope, I was strictly out at the tech center.
HS: Moving in the 1967, how did you hear about the events that occurred in Detroit?
WG: In ’67, I just graduated from Michigan Military Academy, the OCS for Guardsmen, officers. I just became a Second Lieutenant the week before the riots.
HS: So the Michigan Military academy, is there a specific branch—
WG: No, it was Michigan National Guard, army.
HS: All right. Then were you called to duty in July of ’67?
WG: Yes, I was. Not the first day. There’s another side story, I’ll get to that later. On Sunday, we heard about the problems. My buddy, who was in a different unit who had just graduated with me, went in on Sunday to 12th and 13th Streets. My unit was still up at Grayling that week. When they got activated Monday morning, they called me and told me to meet them at the artillery armory.
HS: Where was that? What city?
WG: That’s up there, it’d be Southfield now, the old artillery armory. I got there Monday, already the city was flaming. We’ve seen two bad nights already. From the artillery armory my platoon got moved down to a fire station at West Chicago and Livernois. Could be Joy Road, but I still think it’s West Chicago. We were security for that fire station at the time. Quite frankly, we were at the, if I can call it, the outskirts of the main riots.
HS: That was Monday?
WG: Yes, that was Monday. It would be the 26th, 27th—whatever that day would be.
HS: 24th, I think. So you said that you worked security for the fire station at Chicago and Livernois. What exactly did that entail?
WG: Basically walking up and down in front of the station and keeping it secure. Later on that day, I was taken with about a squad of soldiers. We went down to the main fire station which is down near Cobo Hall, right across from Cobo Hall. I spent my time walking up and down in front with my rifle on my shoulder. The highlight to that day was all the businessmen were coming into work and leaving, but the highlight for me was that afternoon, the chefs at the Ponchartrain, which was right across the street, brought over a big barrel or tray of beef tips. Best dinner I had on those two weeks.
HS: We actually had a woman who works here now, who I believe was a waitress at the Ponchartrain, tell us that same story. I know a lot of National Guardsmen were sent out with firemen to protect them while they were firefighting, you never—
WG: I never got into that part. I had stories from my buddy, but I did not witness it at all.
HS: What was the mood or atmosphere, would you say, of the National Guard in general during this week? Tense, worried, relax?
WG: A little tense, but not worried. At night, if we were outside the fire station, you would hear gunfire, some of it in the area, but the old timers that were coming out, were saying, “Don’t worry about that. What they’re doing, the people that are coming out on their top porches or up on the roofs, firing off shotgun, then going right back in the house again.” Nothing was shot at us. I was never threatened, per se.
HS: Did you feel more relaxed during the riots as opposed to afraid or anxious?
WG: What’s that?
HS: Did you feel not relaxed, but I guess calm during the riots? Were you afraid or anxious at any point?
WG: No, I wasn’t afraid. I was alert, more than anything else. I realized that that can change in an instant, but I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t relaxed, either. I knew that was going on all around us, and it could happen right there at any time, which it didn’t.
HS: So more cautious than anything. Okay. How long were you in the city for?
WG: I was there for two weeks. The first week was on the west side. They pulled us back into the artillery armory the middle weekend, and quite frankly I don’t remember which day. Then sent us to the east side, and we got based out of Eastern High School, which is on Van Dyke, south of 94. That was a long day for me because I remember I was up already over thirty hours. All I remember is that once we got settled in at the high school, I sat down on the floor in the hallway, promptly fell asleep until morning.
HS: I was going to ask, if you lived in Adrian, but were serving in the city during this time, where did you stay?
WG: Either at the fire stations or at the armory. The second week was always at the high school. Basically you took a classroom, moved all the school chairs to the back of the room, rolled out our sleeping bags, and slept right there in the classroom. The beauty of Eastern, it had a swimming pool. After a twelve-hour shift at night, we’d come back and rather than just take a shower, we’d strip, jump in the pool, and swim for a while. On a hot summer night, that felt real good. We only had one call out in the evening. Again, gunfire in a residential area. My only memory of that is that we’re coming down the street here, quietly walking along the sidewalk, nothing’s happening, and a unit pulls up behind us and it turns out to be the 82nd, I believe it was. They came through us and say, “You guys stay put. We’re going ahead.” So they did. The second week was actually boring. It did have one highlight. On the one night, and I can’t remember what day it was, we’re driving up Gratiot, somewhere around Van Dyke, a flame comes out from behind the store fronts and lands right in front of our little squad convoy. We pull up, I’m in the jeep, I look down. We were shot at by a flaming arrow. Fired it up over the building, landed in the middle of the street. I said, oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.
HS: That’s unexpected. I would’ve guessed, when you said a flame, I would’ve thought a malotov cocktail or something, but an arrow?
WG: Yeah, an arrow! But the biggest challenge we had the second week in the neighborhoods were people—we kept pushing them into their homes for safety or security purposes, and of course they’d come back out. We’d drive by an hour and a half later, and “Please folks, you’ve gotta go back inside.” Understanding those days and times, that’s like saying, “Get out of the heat and go into the steam room.” None of those homes had air conditioning of any type. About the only other fun time, a friend of mine that had just gotten married—well, no, he’s been married for three years. But they lived in Hamtramck and I knew their address, so I drove up to their address in Hamtramck in a jeep with a couple of GIs, and I calmly walk up to their apartment, which was a second-story flat. I guess the mayor of Hamtramck at that time lived on the same street and he was a mite nervous about us. From the actual riot period, that’s about as much as I remember.
HS: When you were working security at the fire station, did anybody ever try to break through your lines?
WG: Oh, no. No nothing. Like I say, it was a boring stint. You were there for hours, but nobody ever came up or challenged us or anything else.
HS: Other than your run-in with the 82nd that one night that you got called out, did you have any other interaction with the federal troops when they were called in?
WG: No. If we had to say anything about it, we were a little irritated that they were. From what I remember of it, I’m thinking, hey, it’s under control. Why do we need the airborne now? That’s what stuck in my mind.
HS: So you were kind of a little offended, like, they don’t think we can handle this?
HS: Those two weeks that you were in Detroit. Was your wife still in Adrian?
HS: How was she handling all of this and feeling?
WG: We had a little girl. She was only a little bit over 1, so she was, and of course the news, she was nervous. Second week when I was able to give her a call, I told her, “It’s quiet here. We should be breaking up soon. I’ll be home soon.”
HS: So you didn’t get to call your wife until the second week? That must have been nerve-wracking.
WG: Long before cell phones.
HS: Yeah, I know.
WG: The only other thing I remember is that first day when we went down to the fire station. I remember crossing Grand River, and like I say, we always went across Plymouth and went Grand River downtown. All I remember is looking down this road and seeing all these buildings crumpled down onto the main drag there on Grand River. The only relatively clear was in the center of the road. Everything else was bricks, mortar, ashes, whole nine yards. I was so saddened to see such shambles in my town. And of course, as I went to the east side, I saw more of the shambles, but it was already done, over with. People weren’t coming back in for a while.
HS: At what point would you say the city returned to its normal level of calm?
WG: Technically, about the third week. After my two weeks, it was pretty calm, and that’s why they started releasing units to go back to their home towns.
HS: Are there any other experiences from those two weeks you wanted to share before we move forward?
WG: About the only other one is I remember on the east side, the policemen that were with us that one night said, “I gotta show you this.” Took us to a black grocery store. A little local storefront grocery store. It was just shambles. Trash was just this high on the ground, and human feces on top of the pile, and he said, “This is what happened.” He left it up to us.
HS: Now, was that Detroit police or state police?
HS: Looking back on the events then, would you classify them as a riot, or would you consider them a rebellion or an uprising?
WG: At the time, I always considered it a riot. It wasn’t’ until, what, two, three weeks ago? This article in the Free Press caught my eye. What’s the date? “Riot or was it a rebellion?” And in thinking back on it, remembering back in ’43 there were race riots, I do remember a little bit of the Kercheval the year before. Officially, Detroit wasn’t acknowledging there was a problem there.
HS: What do you think that problem was?
WG: I’m afraid I sort of tend to see it as this article states. It was basically just a simmering, boil if you want to call it, the hatred of the cops, who were just blowing them away, and they just couldn’t stand it any longer.
HS: So you think the rioters were rebelling against mistreatment on the hands of the police?
WG: I think so. I remember, even before the riots, being told about the Big Four and how they could get across the city of Detroit in thirty minutes and they don’t care where it was at. If there was something that they had to get to, they could get anywhere in the city of Detroit in less than thirty minutes. I’m thinking, how can they do that? I’ve been in Detroit and I can’t do it. Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, they drive the shoulder of the expressways. They keep getting around bridges and get across town rather quickly. I do remember hearing those stories about the Big Four.
HS: You said you moved from Adrian to St. Clair Shores?
WG: Yeah, in ’68.
HS: ’68. St. Clair Shores isn’t too far from the city, so in those following years, did you see the city change at all?
WG: Because of my job, didn’t have to come down to the city for any reason. I worked at the tech center, the GM tech center, so basically I’m at 12 Mile at the lake, I go straight down 12 Mile to the tech center. Because I was a traveling job, the only time I went to Detroit was to go across to the airport to fly to my assignments.
HS: So from a suburban point of view, you didn’t see any change in, say, news stories or anything like that?
WG: No. About the only stories, of course, I heard were white flight. People selling their properties to get out of Detroit and move to the suburbs. That was the time of the “Warren Ranches” springing up in Warren, Sterling Heights, all those upper suburban communities were building all the new homes at the time.
HS: I know you said you’re not a big sports fan or anything, but was there any other reasons why you didn’t come into the city? Did you find it unsafe at all or just no interest?
WG: No interest at that point. In ’69 I moved to Ohio. I basically didn’t see Detroit again for twenty years. Went with the company to first Elyria, Ohio, then down to Columbus, Ohio. When the jobs started dying out in the late ‘90s, I finally got back to Rochester Hills in ’89. By that time, Detroit was already, well—
WG: Destroyed and deteriorated. Basically, when we came back, the only reasons we came into Detroit were to go to the Fischer Theatre. It was always on a Saturday or Sunday matinee. In other words, I can get in, see a good show, get back in the car, back to 75, gone. I didn’t stay to eat in town or anything else. I usually came right back out to the suburbs. Later yet, when I did come back into Detroit a little bit more often, it’s sickening to see all the burned out houses off of 75 and the Lodge. So hard. My grandfather had a home on American. That home was destroyed for 96, down by Grand River. I have a feeling the service drive took out his house. That was the sad part. The next time, on my computer, we had an application, Street View. I punched in my wife’s—her name is Jenny by the way—punched in her old address on Maywood. Nothing there. Just open fields and trees. It looked like it’s been mowed, but nothing there. And I swept around, did the 360 view, even the other side of the street—empty. There was only one house that I could see in that whole view and it was the first house off of Van Dyke. Then I found out the church we got married at was St. Thomas the Apostle, near Van Dyke and Harper—gone. No reason for us to go back anymore.
HS: Where do you see the city headed? Positive outlook, or negative, or realistic?
WG: I think it’s positive. Basically, unfortunately the news plays up all the tear downs and the rip ups and the plowing over, and I see that. But this last couple months ago, we went to Pewabic Pottery and we went down—I couldn’t tell you how we got down there—
HS: With the construction.
WG: Yeah, definitely wasn’t Woodward. But I saw a lot of empty land, too, which didn’t surprise me, but what did catch me was the newer rentals and condos and even homes being built there over here on the near east side, just the other side of 375. And I thought, good, the people of Detroit are waking up. They’ve got empty land, let’s refill it and refill the city. That’s what we’re going to have to do.
HS: So you see potential for the city?
WG: Yes. Oh, yeah.
HS: My last question for you would be what advice would you leave for future generations of Detroit? On any topic.
WG: I know, I realize that.
HS: It’s a broad question, but you can take it wherever you want.
WG: We have grown. We can grow again. Maybe not quite the same way, but we can grow, we will grow. We’ll be good.
HS: Sounds great. All right, William, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I appreciate you sharing your stories.