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Stonewall At 50: Lansing's Gay Gathering Place Was Stober's Bar

Don Savolainen photo
Alec Gerstenberger
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WKAR/MSU
Don Savolainen visits Stober's Bar in Lansing for the first time in decades.

The Stonewall uprising in New York happened fifty years ago today. For many, the modern gay rights movement began that day.

To look back at those days, WKAR’s Scott Pohl spoke with a man who remembers the place where gay men congregated at the time.

Don Savolainen is 74 now, so at the time of the Stonewall riots, he was a 24-year-old MSU student who had served in the U.S. Navy. He says that for gay men back then, Rudy Stober’s bar was the place to meet people. This day was his first time back in decades.

“It was a very tight accommodation," Savolainen remembers. "I think the Fire Marshal had it listed at 90 people in the front of this bar. The back, of course, was pool players, gay, straight, whatever. The front was very, very crowded, particularly on weekends. People arrived at 9 o’clock in the evening and didn’t leave until 2, 2:30 in the morning.”

1970 Don Savolainen photo
Credit Courtesy photo / Don Savolainen
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Don Savolainen
Don Savolainen in 1970

Lansing, Savolainen explains, wasn’t known as a place where the authorities bothered people like the patrons of Stober’s, stating “I don’t recall any type of harassment or abuse at that time at all, mainly because of the way society was evolving.”

Savolainen further explains that Lansing police didn’t much concern themselves with the place, saying “among my acquaintences, they were never hassled. If there was a type of harassment, it usually came from fellow students at MSU, that sort of thing.”

That atmosphere, Savolainen says, made Stober’s a place where he and others felt at ease. He adds that the clientele here responded to each other, including newcomers, courteously. “You got to meet a total mix of the Lansing area," Savolainen adds. "MSU students and business community, regular working people, factory people. I never felt uneasy about coming here after the initial entry. The initial entry was difficult, as it always is. It was a good place to have friendships, and you could be yourself, talk about yourself.”

Don says lesbians at the time had their own gathering place called the Long Branch, but he doesn’t remember what part of town it was in.

Savolainen claims he was never closeted. At one time, he spent 36 years with a woman he had met working at the Coral Gables in East Lansing, and they were married for 16 years. He tells me he never kept secrets from her. Later in life, he partnered with a man who passed away not long ago.

Before leaving Stober’s, Savolainen was asked what the 74-year-old Don would say to the 24-year-old Don if he could. His response, after a pause: “Have faith. Have courage in yourself. Have resolve in particular. Develop yourself, and become what you want to become. Really, that’s all it takes for anyone.”

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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