Ronzo: The Gateway Drug to Cool
Who could inspire hundreds of people to don wild hats and brightly colored shirts and take to the streets to celebrate his life, marching down North Lamar in Oxford’s first second line parade? Who else but Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro? He was part of the landscape here for over 40 years, and because of him our lives and our town will forever be changed.
Written by Erin Austen Abbott
We all met Ronzo at different times. For some, it was during that awkward time in adolescence when you are figuring out who you are and growing your first set of armor in the process. For others, it was as an adult, having just moved to Oxford. For many, it was at The Hoka Theatre, the first and last of its kind. But through the vast differences of when, we all share the common thread of how Ronzo made us feel. He could light up a room as he entered, with a smile that was warm, and it was kind, and it was sincere. Ronzo was a beacon that many just needed.
I first met Ronzo when I was about 3 years old. It was the late ’70s, and my mom, Dorothy Abbott, had taken a job at the Center for Southern Culture, moved us to Oxford and discovered The Hoka.
Ronzo and my mom became fast friends. She was a single mom, and The Hoka was a spot that wasn’t too precious to bring two kids to. She didn’t have to cook, and my brother and I would be occupied by the juke box for a long time. She could read or visit with friends while we entertained ourselves. Ronzo would greet us with big hugs and warm smiles every time we stopped in, and he would join us at the table while we ate a “Love at First Bite” (basically a club sandwich, Hoka-style).
Ronzo was the gateway drug to everything cool for me in those early years. He introduced me to so much good music and film, all before I turned 8. I had my fifth birthday party at The Hoka, Ronzo standing over me, watching as I opened my presents. We wore almost-matching plaid shirts that day, which I’m sure was not by mistake — I wanted to be just like him as a child.
I heard teenagers hanging out at The Hoka describe it as the time when they learned it was OK to be weird. The Hoka was always the place you could retreat to and feel a sense of belonging, when nowhere else in town allowed you to be different.
We moved to Florida when I was 9, but I wasn’t done with Oxford. In my 20s, I moved all over the country searching for a place that made me feel like Oxford did in those years — searching for a place like what Ronzo had helped cultivate here. I couldn’t find it anywhere. No place compared to Ronzo’s Oxford.
Upon my return in 2005, Ronzo and I picked right back up like no time had passed. The Hoka was gone by then, but I made frequent stops at his next venture, the Main Squeeze, for the only vegan meal I could find in town at the time. Ronzo will always be so dear to me, and my memories of him will continue to be as the father figure that he was to me.
I hope that we can honor Ronzo by carrying on in his spirit. Smile at strangers; make small talk while waiting in lines; support the arts; read the books by the writers passing through Square Books; sit and stay awhile. Most of all, welcome everyone.
The city of Oxford has planned a memorial for Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro the evening of Nov. 1, at the Powerhouse. The community is invited to join in sharing stories of Ronzo over cocktails, while also taking more memories of Ronzo home with you.
“As someone drawn to the civil rights movement and a more bohemian, unconventional lifestyle, moving to Oxford in the ’70s and finding The Hoka was like coming home. On our weekly Hoka pilgrimages, my children and I were in the company of people who loved music, art, film, literature, and justice.” — Writer and editor Dorothy Abbott
“I never felt bad at The Hoka. And if I ever felt bad, I went to The Hoka and felt better.” — Sparky Reardon in “Sorry, We’re Open”
“It's never too late to be more like Ronzo.” — Jim Dees, longtime Hoka partner and friend of Shapiro and host of Thacker Mountain Radio
“Places, like dogs, have a way on taking on the personality of their owners until the two begin to mirror each other in uncanny and wonderful ways. That was certainly true of The Hoka. Like Ronzo, it was funky and fun, open and warm, a place where weirdos could go and belong, and stiffs could go to loosen up. And by extension, Oxford took on that personality. So, if you think Oxford is cool and you wonder how it got that way, it was Ronzo. Plain and simple. He made us cooler than we deserved to be and thank God for that.” — Filmmaker Joe York, producer of “Sorry, We’re Open,” a documentary film about The Hoka
“Many people were introduced to films that could not be acquired in Oxford with out (Shapiro’s) service,” Shook said. “Without him, we would have been without. It was a gift.” — Fara Shook
“Ron was an electric human being,” Bowen said. “He had a certain kind of energy that excited the whole community.” — Mary Ann Reid Bowen
“I miss his laugh and his words of wisdom, and the way he enjoyed all the moments of life.” — Molly Fergusson Stuart
“Ron didn’t just create a gathering place for the local counter culture, he helped to create and nurture that culture … He was Ronzo, living his optimistic and positive philosophy that being your own weird self makes the world a better place.” — Artist Noah Saterstrom
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the help and support of Ron Shapiro. He was an ambassador of the arts in Oxford and will be deeply missed.” — Artist J-MAN