A week after losing neighborhood icon and ice cream mogul Sonny Siron, friends and family members turned out in the hundreds for a celebration of his life
LYNDALE — Sonny Siron had a knack for making people happy.
It wasn’t just the ice cream he devoted 62 years of his life to, first at a small shop at 34th and Nicollet and later at 34th and Lyndale — the home of Sonny’s Ice Cream since 1950 and Crema Café since 1994.
Many people met Sonny over a scoop or two at one of his shops, but they returned for another sweet treat: his irresistible charm.
He was a gentleman who always had a compliment for the ladies, a grandfather figure whose eyes lit up around children, a man who loved parties, people and conversation and who always seemed to know what comment would make someone’s day.
“He wanted everyone to feel good,” said Sonny’s son, Ron Siron, who keeps the ice cream operation running with life partner Carrie Gustafson. “He was the master at it and he really meant it, too.”
Sonny died peacefully in his home above Crema Café Dec. 27 after a bout with multiple medical conditions. At 81, he had spent nearly his entire life in the same neighborhood, exactly where he wanted to be.
On Jan. 5, roughly 500 friends and family members poured into the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community Center in Linden Hills to celebrate the man who touched so many lives in Southwest and beyond.
Dubbed the Sonshine Celebration, the gathering was Sonny’s last party.
A simple life
Sonny’s real name was Martin, but everyone, including his mother, called him Sonny.
He grew up in the same neighborhood he died in, never wanting to leave, even refusing an offer to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs. He did serve in the Philippines during WWII at 18, but he was quick to settle down in his Southwest neighborhood upon his return.
Sonny was always a clean cut kid, Ron said, too pure to go into the liquor business that occupied many of his relatives, so Sonny’s uncles urged him to get into the innocent business of ice cream. There, in 1945, Sonny found his calling.
"He ate ice cream every day of his life," Ron said. "He loved to eat it and he loved to give it to people."
Sonny stuck mostly to traditional flavors when he made the ice cream, Ron said, but he wasn’t afraid to try something new. Ron and Gustafson have taken trying something new to a higher level with far-out concoctions such as Douglas Fur Sorbet, made with pine needles.
Nowadays Sonny’s Ice Cream can be found in restaurants and dairy cases throughout the Midwest, but it has always been a small, family operation with Sonny as its face.
“Sonny was always the front guy that would talk to everybody,” Ron said. “That was the perfect job for him.”
Keeping up Sonny’s level of interaction with customers while tending to everything else involved in running the business would be tough, Ron said.
“It’s harder for us to sit and talk to people like that,” Ron said. “We might have to do a little bit more of that so people (continue to) feel the connection.”
Sonny kept up the conversation until the very end. Even a month before he died he would be down in the café chatting with customers, putting away chairs and helping out. He worked throughout his life, never officially retiring, Ron said.
“He wanted to be where the action was and be a part of it,” Ron said.
You can’t beat fun
“That’s what this is all about. Sonny wanted one last bang,” said John Meegan, a close friend of Sonny’s who presided over a ceremony at the start of the Sonshine Celebration. Meegan owns tailor service Top Shelf, located a few blocks away from Crema on Lyndale.
He was among several speakers and musicians at the opening ceremony, which incorporated photos of Sonny, a candle procession and — in a decorated ice cream container perched on a pedestal in the front of the sanctuary — Sonny himself.
Speakers shared Sonny memories and the room was filled with smiles from people young and old.
Former Crema employee Amanda Nadelberg rattled off some of Sonny’s most common phrases such as “you can’t beat fun” and “when’s my next party?”
“Sonny was the most beautiful broken record I’ll ever meet,” she said.
Speaker Chris Kopka, an attorney who spent his free time scooping ice cream at Crema, got everyone in the room to hug each other in remembrance of Sonny’s famous embraces.
Crema patron Kirk Cozine told celebration attendees he was part of a group that used to meet at different coffee shops — before the group found Sonny.
“Sonny just made us feel like part of the Crema family,” Cozine said.
During the candle procession, celebration attendees lit small candles near where Sonny’s ashes were placed and made a wish before blowing them out. Some friends and family members paused in front of the container to touch it and say a few words.
One of Sonny’s cousins, also named Martin Siron, stopped to say an emotional goodbye.
“I admired [Sonny] as my big brother,” Martin said.
After the ceremony, celebration goers stuck around for food catered by St. Paul-based Cossetta’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, which Sonny frequented. Sonny’s Ice Cream was also on hand and one of Sonny’s favorite jazz groups, Jazz by Fosse, performed in his honor.
Barry Casselman, who drove Sonny to Cossetta’s for lunch every Saturday, was there. He said Sonny was a caring, accepting, loyal friend whose qualities would be hard to find in anyone else.
Dan LaSota, a good friend of Sonny’s, said the guy had a way of making everyone feel special.
“When I think of Sonny, I think happy things,” LaSota said.
Remembering how the neighborhood rallied around Sonny after he was mugged in 2005, Crema patron Heidi Niziolek said he glued the community together.
Children at the celebration also had strong relationships with Sonny, who was quick to get a cone for any smiling youngster.
Jacob Griffin, 11, said he lives across the street from Crema and used to visit Sonny nearly every day and go on neighborhood walks with him.
“It’s pretty tough not to have him around,” Griffin said. “I miss him a lot.”
Gustafson and Ron moved out of their Cedar Isles Dean home and in with Sonny about eight months ago to take care of him and they were with him when he died.
Ron gave Sonny has last taste of wine from an eye dropper the night before as they sat above the café with candles lit and music playing. Sonny died at 10:45 a.m. Dec. 27.
“When he passed, Carrie and I were right there holding him,” Ron said. “Just like his life was good, it passed good.”
Getting used to the café and Sonny’s home without him there won’t be easy, Ron said.
“For me personally, it’s a huge void because I was with the guy my whole life,” he said.
He and Gustafson plan to continue living above the cafe for the time being, but they plan to take some time off during the next couple weeks to reflect on Sonny’s life and do some soul searching.
Ron and Gustafson have placed a comment book at a table reserved for Sonny in the back of the café for anyone who would like to leave their Sonny memories.
“The people that were able to hang out with Sonny, boy they were blessed because he was a real special, kind, simple person,” Ron said. “I think he’s the kind of guy that only comes along once in a while and a lot of these people won’t find another Sonny maybe in their lifetime.”
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]