Obituary: Donald Zierdan, Mpls. police officer, dies at 77

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2013 - 12:15 AM

The Third Precinct in south Minneapolis encompasses neighborhoods of struggle and calm. A rookie cop soon learns that, more than by using a map, he needs to navigate it emotionally if he really wants to understand it.

Geographically, it is the city’s largest precinct. The tough streets of the Powderhorn, Bryant and Central neighborhoods lead north toward downtown, stately brick homes line the Mississippi River on its east and the stucco bungalows of Nokomis ring the lake on the south. The faces of the residents are as diverse in color as the languages heard around the bus stops on E. Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue.

As the precinct underwent cultural and racial transformations in the 1980s and 1990s, no patrolman was a better fit to work there than Donald Zierdan, a cop who grew up and stayed to raise his own family there.

Zierdan died Dec. 8, after a long struggle with cancer.

He was 77.

During his 32 years on the force, Zierdan always worked in “hard clothes,” the slang that patrol officers fondly use to distinguish themselves from the detectives in suits. Working from a cramped squad, he was well known as he made the rounds through the precinct’s neighborhoods and business sections. Often, he’d moonlight to provide security at two Mexican restaurants that stayed open to attract customers who had just finished last calls at nearby bars.

Zierdan grew up in the Powderhorn neighborhood, making his mark as a champion speedskater who raced on the local rink. As a teenager, he worked to pay the tuition to attend DeLaSalle High School. After being discharged from the Marines, Zierdan joined the police force in 1962. Within a few years he was sent to the Third — not just because he had grown up there.

In those days, cops were often assigned to precincts based on their religion and military history. The Third was filled with Catholic cops who’d served in the Marines. Zierdan spent more than 25 years there and retired from the department in 1994.

“He was a ‘Steady Eddie,’ ” recalled Tom McKenzie, a retired officer who, as a 22-year-old rookie, learned unspoken lessons from the veteran. “In those days, when you came on as rookie, you were mostly shunned until you proved that you had earned your stripes. I never saw that kind of attitude in Don. He was such an even-tempered person. If you had a loved one who needed police assistance, say, your mother, this is the guy who you’d want to show up.”

Zierdan was twice awarded the Medal of Valor in 1977, capturing an armed robber and, months later, rescuing an elderly, hearing-impaired man who did not realize he was in the line of fire during a shootout.

A few years earlier, he had decided to learn sign language because he found that hearing-impaired people often refrained from contacting police if they were victims of a crime. He told his friends that the vocabulary of police reports did not easily translate for the hearing-impaired.

One of Zierdan’s two sons, Scott, is a lieutenant on the force and runs the Special Operations Center. They were the only active, father-son combination in the department to have each been awarded a Medal of Valor.

“When I was 9, he used to pick me up on a hot summer night and drive me along on ride-alongs because we didn’t have air conditioning in the house,” Scott Zierdan said. “I grew up having a feel for what he did and when I went into the academy, I already understood the process. He had a fantastic career.”

Zierdan is survived by Patricia Zierdan and five children: Donald Jr., Deborah, Catherine, Scott and Mary. Services have been held.

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