By RICH FOLEY
I think the word “legendary” gets thrown around too much these days, but if anyone I’ve known personally deserves that description, it could be the late Don Stiriz. I’ll bet that few who knew him would disagree.
I still remember the first time I met Don. I had recently written a letter to the editor concerning a village government matter and a short time later went into The Pizza Stop for the first time. Don’s wife Jane, whom I knew from her antique store, made the introduction.
Don, then a Fayette council member, wasted no time giving me his opinion of my opinion. But after having his say, in detail, he told me the first of many fascinating stories he shared over the years. When I finally got up to leave, he asked “What’s your hurry?” Over the years, I was to hear that question many times.
I soon came to look upon Don as something of a mentor. He reminded me a lot of my late Uncle Bob, my last male relative from an earlier generation. I could always count on Don for some good advice, a story or two and a laugh or two, sometimes three.
The decor at The Pizza Stop—now The Pizza Place—included photos of Don and Jane with Bob Evans, a rival restauranteur nearly as famous as them and another of Don with Boxcar Willie.
Boxcar Willie, for those scratching their heads, was a country singer famous for his early 1980’s television ads for one big selling album after another. And Don once made him a pizza. His celebrity customers were sometimes a story topic.
Various vehicles were a subject for conversation, too. When Don purchased an old utility company bucket truck to aid in renovating one of his downtown buildings, I suggested he should enter it in parades and ride in the bucket so his fans could see him. He always enjoyed the suggestion, but I could never convince him to do it.
Another regular topic was the antique Buick he was restoring. I thought I had an old Buick, but Don’s had me beat by 70 years. Once, I ran across an ad for another Buick, one year newer than Don’s, for sale in Lenawee County. He directed me to call him with the phone number as soon as I got home. I did so, but I guess he decided one vehicle project at a time was enough.
Instead, he bought himself a new car. One night when I stopped in for dinner, Don asked my opinion of the brand he was considering. I doubt that a negative answer would have changed his mind, but he seemed pleased that I concurred with his choice. Luckily, he also seemed happy with the purchase after the fact as well.
One time we even had a summit conference of sorts at another restaurant. For about two hours, we discussed anything and everything. My Facebook recap said “Had dinner at Cruisers last night with pizza magnate Don Stiriz. We finalized our plans for world domination, starting with Fayette.” Unfortunately, time ran out before we could finish the job.
Although Don was well known for his sense of humor, on occasion I got to be the one giving him the laughs. He once asked me if I had ever been in the military. I said I hadn’t, but that a female friend of mine he had recently met had been in the Air Force. When he asked what she did in the service, I answered that she had been a fighter pilot. It was probably the biggest lie I’ve ever told.
He found that information fascinating. After letting him enjoy the “news” for a minute or so, I told him the truth. He laughed and said, “Well, it sounded possible.” That story became a favorite little joke between us.
When I later told him about seeing a television show dealing with conspiracies that claimed the military had once run a secret space program on the Air Force base my friend had served at, we decided that maybe she had really been an astronaut. Obviously, she would had been sworn to secrecy so we couldn’t confirm it. The last time I saw Don, just a few weeks before his passing, we were still discussing that possibility. He may be telling the story in Heaven right now.
For years, Don had shown a great interest in the Observer wall project, always asking about the progress, if any, when I saw him. By some strange twist of fate, the wall was completed less than 48 hours after his passing. Somehow, though, I think he knows.