Ralph 'Buster' Talbot wasn't supposed to become Anoka County sheriff. But he held the job for a record 26 years.
The new Anoka County sheriff's nickname was Buster. He had yet to turn 30. He was appointed sheriff even though his legendary predecessor and the County Board chairman endorsed another deputy.
So began the legend of Ralph "Buster" Talbot, who might never have been named to the job had it not been for a technicality that prevented the board from voting for the man whom the retiring sheriff preferred.
But Talbot, who was caked in plaster and covered in dust the day he informally applied for a job in the office eight years earlier, would go on to serve as Anoka County sheriff longer than anyone before or since.
"People felt I was too young when they appointed me in 1959," Talbot, 82, said last week. With a remarkably firm handshake that still commands attention and respect, Talbot quipped, "Nice of them to let me grow into the job."
Talbot served as sheriff for 26 years, rubbing elbows with such dignitaries as Vice President Hubert Humphrey and several governors, but never allowing the county in which he grew up to take a back seat to its more populous neighbors.
He opened the first modern countywide jail, formed a major-crimes investigative unit and instituted the first countywide radio system for emergencies.
Talbot served as president of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, was state director of the national sheriffs association and was an original member and chairman of the Minnesota Peace Officer Training Board.
He earned a merit award for Sheriff's Youth programs by helping to establish the Sheriff's Boys Ranch in Isanti and helping to build an ice arena in Anoka.
An innovator who was beloved as the people's sheriff, Talbot will be honored Sept. 20 at the Courtyards of Andover at a dinner that will serve as a fundraiser for the Anoka County Historical Society's endowment. (For information, go to www.ac-hs.org or call 763-421-0600.)
"I never took anything for granted," Talbot said while thumbing through a scrapbook. "I remember one time, I was trying to put together a contract with Lexington, Lino [Lakes], Circle Pines and Centerville. The municipal liquor store was next door, and I told these guys from Centerville that I'd buy 'em a few drinks.
"The mayor from Centerville, a guy named Marcel Rivard, was there. Nice guy. Till we got to talking.
"I says to him, 'Marcel, the last election, there's 95 votes cast in Centerville. And I only got 93.'
"He turns to me and says, 'Well, Buster, I was one. I don't know who the other one was.' "
Talbot always understood humility. He was born the youngest of eight children in Anoka in 1929, less than a month before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. He was raised in Coon Rapids, when the county's largest city was a tiny rural community. His father was a farmer and his mother a teacher -- before she had three boys and five girls.
But the family history was steeped in law enforcement. Buster's great-uncle, John Kearney, was Anoka County sheriff from 1893 to 1899 and from 1900 to 1903. Buster's grandfather John Casey was sheriff from 1909 to 1919.
But the sheriff whom Talbot most admired was the man he would ultimately succeed.
"Mike Auspos was one of the most respected law enforcement officers you could find," Talbot recalled. "I thought him and Paul Bunyan were cousins. He was that big."
Having recently completed a post-World War II stint in the National Guard, Talbot was looking for work. It was 1952, and he had a job as a plasterer. His brother-in-law Don Clark owned a dairy bar, where Auspos often drank coffee. Talbot was working a job on Lake Street when Clark interrupted him with urgent news.
"They're gonna hire somebody tomorrow," he told Talbot. "If you have any interest at all, you gotta talk to Mike tonight."
Caked in plaster and covered with dust, Talbot visited Auspos, not fully convinced he even wanted the job.
"I think he knew me because he probably took me home once or twice," Talbot said with a chuckle.
Brash and with absolutely nothing to lose, he told the sheriff: "I don't know if I'd like it or if you'd like me. But I'd like to try it for six months."
"So he hired me," Talbot recalled. "At that time, law enforcement wasn't that important."
But Talbot, who was about to marry an Anoka girl, Kate Hall, knew the Anoka and Coon Rapids areas -- and, in those days, knowing how to get to places quickly was crucial. The sheriff's staff was minuscule compared with today's standards, with slightly more than a half dozen deputies. But every deputy was a living, breathing GPS tracker, a walking road map who really knew the streets he'd have to police.
Today, the Anoka County Sheriff's Office is in a state-of-the-art, 135,000-square-foot building, a complex that has become the gold standard in Minnesota. But when Talbot joined, the office was based in a 20-by-20-foot basement office under the stairs of the old courthouse.
There was no jail. Prisoners were booked with the city of Anoka, Talbot said. Inmates were sent to Stearns County. Anoka County had no radio network of its own, preferring to contract with Hennepin County.
But with Auspos in charge, things ran smoothly.
Then Auspos decided to retire, somewhat unexpectedly, before his term had been completed.
Somebody had to succeed him, but it wasn't supposed to be Talbot, who had been a deputy for eight years. He'd heard that Irv Barrett, another deputy, wanted the job. And Barrett had the endorsement of Auspos and County Commissioners Gus Johnson and Fred Knodt. But it would take a majority of the five-member County Board to make the ultimate decision. Commissioners Ed Fields and Al Kordiak were leaning toward Talbot.
When the day came to vote, Knodt made a motion to have the board elect Barrett. But as board chairman, Johnson was not allowed to second the motion. Nobody else did.
Commissioner Mervale Stinson then moved to appoint Talbot. Fields seconded the motion, and Kordiak's vote ultimately made Talbot sheriff.
"I had a good run," Talbot said. "Shoot, we never had any crime when I was sheriff.
"I worked under 13 county commissioners, and I always approached the job by asking, 'Why can't we just all get along?' And when we did, I felt like I was the luckiest man on Earth because I had the greatest job."
The man who still hands out Irish proverbs to those he feels needs them says he will have family from 12 to 15 states at the fundraiser in Andover. He's lost the love of his life, his wife, who died in 2005. But he says he stays plenty busy playing cards with buddies, making occasional casino runs to Mille Lacs and playing with his seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
"I think about that day that I met with Mike Auspos," he said. "I told him to give me six months and I said I would give the job six months and we'd see if things worked out.
"What the hell? I guess they worked out."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419