Swinging around on his bar stool, Tyrus Walter Burgess, chuckled. “I can just imagine the arguments this could cause.” Many contend one must be born here or at least have graduated from Put-in-Bay High School to be a Put-in-Bay Islander. However, Ty was born in Michigan and only attended school in Put-in-Bay for one day. His grandmother dropped out before she could graduate.
Ty favors a point system to define an islander, with credits for island birth, Put-in-Bay graduation, contributions to island life, actual time spent on the island (deducting the nine months a year summer residents are NOT here) and one’s family history on Put-in-Bay.
“Would you count jail time,” he asked wryly. “I spent a night in jail after I wrecked my Mother’s car and was bailed out the next day by Mayor Bill McCann, Mack’s Dad.” “My Mom was born here, and her Mom was born here.
Surely, that is worth points.” Both of Ty’s grandmothers are buried here, as are his parents. His great grand uncle, Karl (Charles) Ruh arrived in 1854, the same year islander Joseph De Rivera St. Jurgo acquired the Bass Islands.
The large granite tombstone of his great-grandfather, Anton Ruh, stands directly across from De Rivera’s crypt at Crown Hill Cemetery. Island wags may find it UNCONSCIONABLE that your intrepid reporter had the brazen audacity to do a serious interview with anyone enjoying the SANCTITY of a bar stool.
Get Over it! You should know better than to leap to premature conclusions on Put-in-Bay.
The red cushioned bar stool in question isn’t IN a bar. It is one of two at Ty’s workbench – which was once part of the shuffleboard at Tony’s. The stools are originally from the Crescent Tavern. The auto chassis in front of the workbench had twice fallen through the ice and sank into Lake Erie before Ty acquired it. Now he is restoring it as an island ice car. A big aerial bomb is suspended from the rafters in plates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Is the bomb inert? “Birds used to nest in it. I found it in an island dump.”
In desperation, he christened his driveway after a persistent mainland shipper said he must have a street name. “It was raining, and lots of toads were jumping around, so I told ‘em ‘Toad Road.’ ” A proper street sign now marks the entrance. Plagued by mice last winter, he developed a bloodless catch-and-release program that solved the problem. Each morning he feeds his squirrels and birds. Ty is a knowledgeable historian (early Fords, Put-in-Bay history, family archives), prolific photographer, an enthusiastic collector of old (mostly black and white and mostly mysteries) movies, and a seemingly tireless finder, collector, and restorer of old cars.
He is also an inquisitive traveler (“I’ve been in all the states except the Dakotas.”) and an amusing raconteur, and a discerning connoisseur of “Dry Cat” (Heineman’s Dry Catawba wine.) He always seems to have several projects going on and always takes his time, abhorring haste, a quick fix, or even suggesting a deadline.
“Ty is an island treasure because of his vast knowledge of Model A’s and Model T’s, his meticulous research, attention to detail, and his determination to ensure the job is done right the first time,” said John Dodge.
John is one of Ty’s innumerable island cousins and a close friend since childhood. “Ty is one of the easiest-going people I know. There is nothing to dislike about him,” added Islander Jack Wertenbach, “We’ve known each other since we were kids.”
Even as a youngster, spending summer vacations on the island with his grandparents, Ty would “go treasure hunting in my dad’s junkyard,” Jack said. Ty’s Grandmother, Katherine Gross, was born on the island in 1879. He spent his childhood summers with her. He only remembers her leaving the island once – to go to Detroit to see “State Fair,” her first movie.
It was the only Rogers and Hammerstein musical written for the Silver Screen and celebrated hometown pride. She loved it. He has photos of her working in the family vineyards, wearing a broad-brimmed hat at harvest time.
After high school, Ty joined the Navy, which he credits with helping him get his life squared away. He’d seen the movie “Mr. Roberts,” starring Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon, and wanted to serve on a similar small freighter. Instead, he was assigned to a ship twice the size. The Washburn had a crew of 250 sailors and 50 of-woman who collected his ring in Taiwan or his missing bag of teeth from the Bering Sea if you want to get him started.)
Ty served four years in the Navy, between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, “and then came home to be an islander for good.” Ty’s dad, Ralph, a Navy veteran, was the proud owner of several consecutive Lyman Islanders and an avid boatman who sailed aboard racing yachts. He sometimes took Ty with him on 10-day voyages to deliver 50-foot Chris-Craft from Algonac, MI., to Philadelphia via the Erie Canal.
“Most of my tools are from my Dad. He could rebuild anything. He never taught me, but I did a lot of watching.” How complicated is it to restore a 1930 Model A? “I figure 5,000 parts, 1,500 hours, and four years to do it” because he must track down so many parts. “I didn’t do anything with one wreck we salvaged from Sugar Island for years and years.” Then Ty and his brother Jim built their Sugar Island Model T, replete with a $1,000 radiator they located in California.
After he got out of the Navy, Ty initially helped islanders Art and Lolita Saunders create their nine-hole golf course. “We took out all the trees and then planted 1,000 new ones.” It became a four-year project because Ty was frequently diverted to work on one of their 20 guest cottages. Then he worked for four years with Fran Marrow. “He liked high jobs…church steeples, roofs, and a floor on top of the monument.”
He remembers racing Model A’s around DeRivera Park. “They made us tie one door to the other because there weren’t any seat belts.” Ty came in second. One of Ty’s first cars was a beautiful Chinese red 1952 MG TD with side curtains. After islander Norma Wasson rode with him in the MG to Toledo during a snowstorm, she laughingly told friends, “It was snowing harder inside than it was outside.”
Eventually, Ty settled down, taking advantage of his engineering training in the Navy. He went to work at the Perry Monument and became chief of maintenance. During his 26 years there, he earned accolades during a major blizzard and power outage by quickly draining the monument’s water system before it could freeze. First, he deposited his family safely with his parents.
“I am happy to say my children take after their dad and plan ahead, rather than waiting until the last moment to do something, like I do,” said islander Jeanne Burgess, Ty’s ex-wife, next-door neighbor, and friend. “When he got out of the Navy, I was a junior in high school. We were married when I was 21. We were married for 17 years.
I still feel guilty that he sold the MG TD (to his older brother) and bought a Volkswagen Beetle” because children were on the way, Jeanne recently confessed. Their daughter Tracy, whose sons have their dad’s names, credits her dad with instilling “a need to see the world.” Her brother visited Russia when he was sixteen, and she traveled in the Middle East.
“Even though my parents split, they gave us a very stable childhood, knew the importance of college, and supported us,” Tracy said. Travel, as her dad told them, “also reminds us of how good we have it in Put-in-Bay.” Meanwhile, back at islander George Stoiber’s garage, Ty says, “When I am not working on my cars, I’m working here…I don’t know what we’ll do next.
He doesn’t want to do a hot rod.”Neither was worrying about their next project. For the moment, they were looking forward to the pot roast George was cooking for their evening meal with friends. “I like to cook and ensure the bachelors get their fruits and vegetables,” George quipped.