Mildred “Millie” DeZiel may have traveled more vertical feet in her lifetime than just about anyone who didn’t fly planes for a living.
And she may have made more friends than just about anyone, period.
For 63 years, DeZiel operated elevators in downtown Minneapolis, the last 20 at the landmark Young-Quinlan Building. With her red hair elegantly coifed, wearing white gloves and an immaculately tailored suit, DeZiel was a familiar figure to generations of downtown workers, shoppers and visitors.
DeZiel, of Minneapolis, died Nov. 23. She was 90.
“She absolutely loved her job,” said her daughter, Paula DeZiel of Golden Valley. “She would tell me stories of how generations rode with her. And they bonded with her. She nurtured them in those moments they had together.
“One man brought his son onto the elevator one day. He said, ‘Millie, he wants to get a tattoo. Can you talk some sense into him?’ ”
DeZiel was born in northeast Minneapolis to Polish immigrants and retained a lifelong devotion to her Polish heritage and Catholic faith.
“Her faith was just tremendous,” said her son, Wallace DeZiel of St. Michael. “Every year she’d make little lamb cakes and bring them to the nuns at Ascension School at Easter. She’d make those lamb cakes and get the basket blessed.”
DeZiel got her first job operating elevators at the former Dayton’s department store in 1946, where she regularly gave rides to the five Dayton brothers. She was young and independent, with no thoughts of marriage, her daughter said.
“She’d say, ‘Why do I want to get married? I’ve got a job, I’ve got my own money,’ ” Paula DeZiel said. “Then she went out with the gals one night to Bryant-Lake Bowl. My dad was bowling there, and he said, ‘Who is that living doll?’ It was love at first sight.”
She married Paul DeZiel in 1949 and had seven children, but kept working after each child was born. She’d get up at 4 a.m., pack lunches for the kids, then take the streetcar or, later, the bus to work downtown. The children often joined her after school and had ample opportunity to explore what was then a smaller, and perhaps friendlier, downtown.
As the years passed, DeZiel became a downtown legend, especially in her last job at Young-Quinlan, when virtually every other elevator operator in the city had been replaced by buttons. She was so well-known that even in death, she was recognized.
When the family came to pick up her ashes after her cremation, Wallace DeZiel said, the secretary at the funeral home said, “Is this the elevator lady?”
And she never lost her professional pride. DeZiel spent her last years in a nursing home. But after 63 years of being on her feet every day, she didn’t like sitting still. She liked to walk around, and sometimes she left the building without permission.
The elevator at the nursing home was set up so the residents couldn’t operate it without a staff member. DeZiel discovered that she was able to make it work. But she didn’t take advantage of it — she reported it.
“She went to the managers and said, ‘That elevator is broken,’ ” Wallace DeZiel said with a laugh.
DeZiel was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years. In addition to Paula and Wallace, she is survived by sons Greg of Escanaba, Mich., Tom of Rochester, Minn., and Craig of Minneapolis; daughters Cynthia Brown of Rice Lake, Wis., and Christina Marson of Fairfield, Conn., and 17 grandchildren.
A memorial mass has been held.