Martin (Sonny) Siron had a kind word -- and probably a different ice-cream flavor -- for everyone in the south Minneapolis neighborhood he anchored for 62 years. There was nothing vanilla about Sonny or the joy he spread -- images frozen in time, much like his irresistible ice cream.
"You hear about leprechauns with magical twinkles in their eyes -- and Sonny had that twinkle," said John Meegan, owner of Top Shelf, a tailor service on Lyndale Avenue three blocks north of Sonny's.
"For years, Sonny transmitted something special with all the hugs he gave," Meegan said. "There's been a constant procession of parents taking their kids to his café on 34th and Lyndale, wanting their kids to receive those hugs. And ice cream."
Until his death Thursday after a long battle with various illnesses, Sonny Siron, 81, was always here, in this, his neighborhood. His legacy will live on at restaurants and in frozen food cases that sell Sonny's Ice Cream throughout the Midwest. And Saturday, it could be felt in conversation throughout Sonny's Ice Cream and Crema Café, where, on warm summer evenings, the line outside extends beyond the café door on Lyndale and stretches around the corner on 34th Street.
It was on such a summer day years ago that Kirk Cozine and Liz Short brought their son McLean for his first taste of ice cream, which Sonny insisted on serving to the toddler himself. Alex Ghebregzi, a University of Minnesota professor, recalled coming to the café to grade papers -- only to take a detour into Sonny's conversations about anything and everything, from dogs to gardening.
"When Sonny was here, you felt like you were going to a friend's house," Ghebregzi said Saturday.
Loved that home cookin'
Sonny grew up here -- well, two blocks west, on 34th and Bryant. A marvelous athlete, he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but turned down the opportunity to play professional baseball "because he didn't want to stray too far from his mama's cookies, and probably not from this neighborhood," said Carrie Gustafson, the business and life partner of Sonny's son, Ron Siron.
It was Sonny's uncles and cousins who pushed him into the world of ice cream in 1945, who decided that a clean-cut kid who didn't smoke or curse shouldn't follow them into the liquor business, said Ron Siron. But the recipe for success was all Sonny's own.
Here's the scoop: Sonny was willing to try any flavor. Walk into the café today and the available flavors range from hot cinnamon and hot chocolate to cranberry apple sorbet.
"When he told us he was making basil and balsamic vinegar ice cream I thought he was off his rocker," said customer Alicia Cozine. "But it was fabulous."
Even the most exotic flavors were from close to home. For decades, Sonny lived above his ice-cream factory. When Gustafson convinced the Sirons to open the café in 1994, "Sonny got to be Sonny," Gustafson said, recalling how he would relax upstairs, wait for the phone to ring and then greet customers who just had to see him.
The phone rang often.
Like fine wine
"Everyone was in love with him," Gustafson said. Added Ron Siron: "Sonny was so easygoing, so natural. Sonny wasn't the life of the party. Sonny was the party."
While Sonny never followed his uncles into the liquor business, he liked his wine, friends and family remembered. John Liljequist grew up in Minneapolis and now lives in Singapore. Home visiting, he was at Sonny's Crema Café Saturday sharing Sonny stories, including one about Sonny's exercise program.
Sonny, a World War II vet who was stationed in the Philippines at 18, often said that he could justify having a glass of wine if he walked around the block. One day, he turned the corner, but immediately turned back. Gustafson, witnessing the charade, told him he could have but a tablespoon of wine.
The night before he died, Sonny had his last taste of wine -- from an eyedropper, Ron Siron said.
A celebration of Sonny's life will be held Saturday at the Spiritual Community Center, 4401 Upton Av. S., Minneapolis.
"But Sonny will always be in this neighborhood," Meegan said. "He told me, 'No matter how far away you get, you can never find a better place than this.'"
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419