For 37 years, Art Blakey patrolled the Minnesota State Fairgrounds as chief of police. His reason for coming back every summer was simple.
“Just being there,” said Brooke Blakey, his daughter. “The atmosphere.”
Blakey, a lifelong St. Paul resident and the first black officer sworn into the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, died Saturday in his home. He was 83.
He was a beloved figure at the fairgrounds, where for 12 days a year his role was to keep things running as smooth as the milk from the all-you-can-drink stand.
He got his first job at the fair in 1951, where as a teenager he worked as a busboy in the Executive Dining Hall. He joined the fair’s police force in 1970. “I haven’t missed a fair since,” he told the Star Tribune in 2012.
Blakey was promoted to State Fair police chief in 1980. He and his officers dealt mostly with the mundane: shoplifters, drunkards, small brawls and countless requests for the nearest restroom. He retired from the force last year.
“Our hearts are breaking today,” fair General Manager Jerry Hammer said in a statement. “Art was a true hero in every respect, and was a mentor to generations of police officers from across the nation. All who knew this powerful and gentle giant were touched by his overwhelming spirit.”
It was a humble, caring spirit, said Brooke Blakey, who is now the fair’s public information officer.
“I watched him be a role model. I watched him help people,” she said. “He always reminded me that it was important to treat people with respect, even at their worst.”
Blakey moved from a South Dakota farm to St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood at age 5 and never left, she said. His family stayed nearby, with his three children all within eight blocks of each other, what she called the “Blakey triangle.”
“[St. Paul] represented who he is,” she said.
One of his most prized possessions was a cranberry-red, 50th anniversary Chevrolet Corvette with a vanity plate that read “TOPARTY,” Blakey said. He met regularly with his coffee club at Golden Thyme and Bread & Chocolate, two cafes in St. Paul.
Blakey paved the way as the first black officer sworn into the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, according to St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell. He did everything from street patrol to serving as a commander in the state’s gang task force.
In 1996, an off-duty Blakey was shot and wounded trying to break up an apparent robbery attempt at a St. Paul VFW hall. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association named him officer of the year and awarded him with the Distinguished Service Medal for his act.
In a Facebook post, Axtell called Blakey “a St. Paul original,” adding that “He personified kindness, forgiveness and the best of what it means to be a law enforcement professional.”
While no funeral arrangements have been made yet, Brooke Blakey said the family would likely organize a celebration of life at the fairgrounds Friday. Blakey is survived by his wife, Carolyn Carroll-Blakey; his children Brooke, Janelle and Arthur III; a sister, Wanda, and five grandchildren.