by Jon Cleghorn

I first met Steve when he came out several times to SJSU in 1991 to review the student transportation design class project work and to work with us.

That semester we were doing an electric car project for GM. I knew I couldn’t compete in pure rendering ability with my classmates. but I knew GM was looking for “ideas” and I could excel in “ideas” and on the day of final presentation where others took an 8 ft table… I took a 50-ft. wall to present my work covering hundreds of new ideas for products and manufacturing techniques. Well, that must have worked because at the end of the presentation I was awarded the internship. The GM reps assured me I would have help in finding lodging and to my surprise after borrowing my brother’s new Firebird and driving to Michigan from California I found out that Steve was putting me up at his house.

I spent the entire summer there and Steve and I were like brothers; me being two years younger than him and still going through my “school starvation phase,” and Steve now back into taking care of his health since his school and internship days. Over the summer I soon learned we had common interests in everything: a love of the outdoors, of design, great families and just passion for things we do in general.

Steve put me up for free for the summer, I don’t know if he had ever done this prior or since but I was eternally grateful. He showed me the town, where he used to live, I believe he talked of a mural he did for a restaurant there in Greek town which he lived above. He often got free tickets for events from GM which we went to like the Detroit Grand Prix which we would attend.

He drove an unassuming Suzuki Sidekick which I think he had to disguise as a Chevy Tracker to placate GM upper management. It was a go anywhere vehicle, that got good mileage, could be parked anywhere, was reliable, was a convertible for enjoying the sunshine and could haul goods like a truck from the markets and hardware store. Even today I drive a similar Isuzu Amigo in remembrance of those days.

I felt bad not paying Steve rent so I started looking to do things around the house. The house was a former dentist office and quite trendy architecturally for the Huntington Woods area. We had a manual push mower and he and I would spend time in the yard taking care of it while others stayed inside in the air conditioning.

In doing yard work I discovered Steve had built-in sprinklers unbeknownst to him which I preceded to dig up and repair and make operational to his astonishment. I think we had the only built in sprinklers in Michigan and everyone was surprised to see them operational after our frequent trips to the hardware store for repair parts. I guess this was a side benefit of owning what was a former business building that needed to keep up its appearance. Later I even discovered screens in storage for all the windows in the attic which I proceeded to clean up and install for Steve. Prior to that Steve would often leave the windows open and I was always wary of what animals might have snuck into the house while we were away at work.

We would often barbecue out on a little foot-long cooker on the back stoop of his house and wrap corn on the cob in tin foil and meats up. It was quite tasty. He enjoyed the sun and outdoors and while in the yard he would often be in a tank top and shorts causing more than one car to slow down. Working out daily, running, eating right—Steve was a specimen that made the ladies swoon. Tall, talented, good looking, athletic build, killer smile, a solid work future and fashion forward meant Steve had no trouble getting dates. His fashion was: good fitting black jeans, a somewhat snug fitting floral print short sleeved shirt showing off his biceps, pointed cowboy boots and a bolo tie with a retro mechanical oversized watch (that I think he got from a date while I was there).

Steve was always quite adventurous (yet a gentleman) and he told me of some of the dates he had recently been on—once jumping the fence at night of the community pool to have a late night swim with his date and on another occasion jumping the zoo fence to have an after hours romantic tour of the facility with a date. Needless to say, the ladies were quite taken with him. One day I came home to find flowers and a card on the door stoop. Yes, he was that kind of guy, the ladies gave HIM the flowers. No name was attached. I was panicked as Steve was dating more than one person at this time and wondered how he would tell which one it was from. PS: both young ladies were awesome people.

He also had a great personality and a great family supporting him which I would often overhear on calls in the kitchen over the summer. He even had a sister named Suzanne just like I do. Steve was there for me as well that summer as it was when my mother and father were going through a divorce and he would often hear our conversations from that same kitchen phone.

Steve told me of his internship at Ford. I believe he did live in a janitorial closet, and used to blend with other day workers in the locker areas in the mornings to shower and have his meals in the cafeteria—I think he did this to save money and buy his Montreal—which he slyly snuck into the U.S. one weekend while at Ford.

The Montreal sat in the garage the entire time I stayed there and if I recall correctly it was in need of fuel injection work. Feeling I needed more things to pay my rent I started working on this near the end of summer to Steve’s delight but was sadly unable to finish before I had to leave. I felt very bad about leaving him in that situation.

Steve seemed to be the golden boy at GM. He went where he wanted often taking me to other studios to see other designer’s work, to the basement archives to see concept cars from the past and to the wind tunnel to work on the Ultralite. GM positioned me in the most advanced concept studio located in the basement.

There I worked on an ultra low drag CNG vehicle. As much as or more than my studio head Steve would come in occasionally to help me with my renderings (the main thing GM wanted me to learn while I was there). Steve was a great teacher. He taught me quite a lot. I still have the renderings he helped me on. In fact, I have all the renderings I did at GM as I asked them for special permission to take them home.

Steve work office at home was one of the former dental work rooms where people had dental work performed. It was functional for him with papers and items still tossed around like he just moved in; his house never got beyond a bachelor pad level of furnishings while I was there. I can only assume he had just recently moved into it. His artwork was cherished by me, like seeing Leonardo’s work first hand. His blending between mediums so smooth that you had trouble deciphering exactly what medium he used. If I recall correctly, Steve never locked the doors to the house. I was shocked that he had his house unlocked all the time with his film cameras and artwork free to be stolen. But that is who he seemed to be, he lived more for the moment more so than locking things away for later use.

I only recently came across this site, I have searched for what became of Steve regularly throughout the years figuring he would have started a design company on the side of his main job, but for years I found nothing and now know why. Some years ago I noticed the online GM Photostore did have some of his work available as prints to sell but they no longer seem to make them available. I wish they would offer them again.

I am devastated to learn of Steve’s passing and it has hit me like losing an actual brother, or possibly more so. And I truly feel for anyone that was a regular part of his life that now doesn’t have him. I think it’s a wonderful thing that his parents (Jan and Larry) have put up a memorial scholarship and I think Steve is smiling at the thought as its just the kind of thing that someone like me or him would appreciate when we were so early on in our careers and busting with ideas and someone to show them to.

Many thanks to Jon Cleghorn for this unique account.

Be sure to check out the previous post on Steve Small.

  1. Jan Small

    Thank you for writing Jon. We always love hearing something new about Steve. Your account of living in Huntington Woods made us smile. We were able to attend the auto show the year Steve and Owen Resh worked on the show car for GM. We saw where he was living and were blown away by his “studio/workout room”, much the same as his bedroom in our home. So many good memories and lots of souvenirs to remember him by.

  2. Great story, Jon. I feel as if I have met Steve.
    Small note: Our lawn in Kalamazoo had built-in sprinklers.

  3. Jon,
    Yes, there are sprinklers in Michigan, as Karl says. My memories of Steve are very close to your description of him. Steve worked for me in Cadillac Studio for about three months. Dennis Little helped him develop an aluminum wheel from a sketch, he was sure it never could be done but Dennis showed him how to retain the theme and still meet the production requirements. After he came in I went with him to his previous studio where he had worked and saw a board of sketches that he had done. He was a Divinci, the most jaw droping collection of design work I had ever seen, I still remember it today.

    He invited my wife and I to his new place over a Mexican restaurant in Greek Town. It was on a corner and he was very proud of what he had done with it, a kind of pre-industrial collection. He was shortly assigned somewhere else and I next saw him just before I left the country for a European assignment. I was only a day or two from leaving and went to my bank in Grosse Pointe shortly after lunch. Closeby was Steve with his parents, they had just had lunch and he explained that they were in town and he was showing them around the different communities. He was especially relaxed with his parents and I remember thinking that maybe we could get him over to work with us. It struck me that his parents were very close to him.

    I was very sad to hear of his passing. He was an incredible talent, a very nice person and he added great value to anyone’s life that came close him.
    I am glad that Gary put this on the site as it is nice to think of him.

    Dick Ruzzin

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