The voice of retired St. Paul police Capt. Ted Fahey is raspy but clear as he flashes back four decades. He had just been hired as a patrolman in 1947 when he and his veteran partner, Allan Lee, responded to a domestic call.
“The guy come running out of the house with a rifle and Lee took out after him,” Fahey says. “He ran in the garage and we’re right behind him. Now I’m a rookie. All I can think of: ‘I’m going to have to get this guy before he can turn the rifle on me,’ so I ran right into the garage.”
He caught the suspect trying to hide the deer rifle. He also caught an earful from Lee. The 12-year veteran scolded the rookie, calling him a “damn fool” because the suspect could have been waiting in the garage — could have killed him.
“I guess I made a mistake,” Fahey said, to which Lee responded: “Just don’t forget it.”
Less than two years later, Lee would be shot and killed when a liquor store bandit he was pursuing in the Rondo neighborhood burst down a staircase, gun blazing. Lee was 42. Fellow officers killed the robber, Oliver Crutcher, later that night.
Fahey’s memories are among countless cop stories captured by St. Paul oral historian Kate Cavett, who is quietly performing some of Minnesota’s most important historical preservation. She’s recording conversations with St. Paul cops, in their own words. She sat down in 2007 for the Fahey interview when he was 87. He’s now 94 and Cavett’s work reminds us that history is neither the sole property of the famous nor the dead.
“Kate has an uncanny ability to get cops to open up and talk about themselves — even when it’s sometimes against their self-interest,” said John Harrington, former St. Paul police chief who now runs Metro Transit police.
Cavett and Harrington first met when he was running St. Paul’s juvenile unit, trying to get a handle on youth gangs. She was working at an adolescent treatment center. They landed a grant and interviewed more than 100 gang members, whose oral histories “completely altered everything I knew about gangs,” Harrington said.
They weren’t just lured into criminal activity for the money, he said, but were wooed by far more complex psychological factors. Cavett went on to a project called the “Voices of Rondo,” capturing oral histories of folks who grew up in the African-American neighborhood razed for Interstate 94 in the 1960s.
“At that time, Chief [Bill] Finney and others were retiring in a mass changing of the guard,” Harrington said. “We feared losing these veterans would mean losing what made our department’s culture unique.”
So he turned again to Cavett, who secured grants from the state Legacy Amendment coffers, other foundations and even Allan Lee’s son to finance her oral history project.
“I try to capture the flavor of the narrators’ speech and convey their feeling through timbre and tempo of speech patterns,” she says. “Memories shared in oral histories create a picture of the narrator’s life — the culture, food, eccentricities, opinions, thoughts, idiosyncrasies, joys, sorrows, passion and the rich substance that gives color and texture.”
Her Fahey interview, conducted in the Homecroft home he built in the 1950s, ranges from recollections of former chiefs to sweet memories of his neighborhood — a “melting pot” of Bohemians (Czechs), American Indians and soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling during the Depression.
There are tender tales of his mother bringing in the stiff, frozen long johns to warm by the stove — “these gals today don’t know what hard times are” — and the welcome advent of indoor plumbing.
He recalls the pre-cell phone days “when you walked the beat, you had a big, long, brass key and it fit into what they called the ‘call box’ ’’ — the street corner technology that served as the lone way to check in with headquarters. His memories of shooting at but missing Oliver Crutcher before the bandit killed Lee is laced with similar emotions found in the oral history Cavett conducted with Sgt. Joe Strong.
Strong, who retired in 2010, was working undercover when his partner, Sgt. Gerald Vick, was shot and killed in an alley outside an East Side bar. Strong, like Fahey, shot at the suspect but missed. “We were done for the night,” Strong tells her. “We let our guard down, no doubt about it. We assumed we were dealing with a couple of drunks. We weren’t.”
He recalls the tension of facing Vick’s widow, Connie, after the funeral. “I really had a hard time doing that because I didn’t know how she was going to react,” Strong says. “I didn’t know how I was going to react. You don’t go to the family of your partner when they died when you were with them. Especially when I’m feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, we totally screwed this up by being so complacent.’ ” We did the first major thing wrong. You have to be on guard all the time and we let our guard down.”
That’s just a slice of the unfiltered, raw stories Cavett keeps collecting, something she’s been doing since her father, the oldest of seven kids, would spin tales about growing up in Oklahoma and serving in Italy and North Africa during World War II.
“Being around great storytellers,” she says, “is a wonderful place to be.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history will appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org