Northeast Minneapolis has lost a legend.
Walt Dziedzic, whose colorful character and commitment to whatever cause was at hand took him from fighting in the Korean War, to playing professional baseball, to working the streets as a police officer, to serving in elected office, died Saturday at the age of 85.
Dziedzic, who had been ailing in recent weeks, died of natural causes at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale.
Thanks to his lifelong prominence in sports and civics, the Dziedzic name became synonymous with northeast Minneapolis.
Dziedzic and his wife, Pat, raised six children there, including state Sen. Kari Dziedzic, D-Minneapolis. Two of their sons became Minneapolis firefighters. Son Joe, who played hockey at the University of Minnesota and for the Pittsburgh Penguins, runs a hockey training center in Roseville.
After 47 years of public service, Dziedzic stepped away from politics in 2009, when he decided not to seek re-election to the city’s Park and Recreation Board.
His wife had encouraged him to take a break, he said. “The time has come. It just seemed right. I thought I was getting a little old for the job,” he said, before quickly adding, “although I still give them a battle.”
He always could.
But Dziedzic was endearingly combative, usually polite and willing to talk. Gregarious and blustery, he was as likely to be playing with his young granddaughter at a DFL convention as he was to be chatting up delegates.
And he was always eager to talk about his beloved black Labrador, Jake, who preceded him in death.
Former Minneapolis City Council Member Barbara Johnson, a member of another north Minneapolis political dynasty as the daughter of late council president Alice Rainville, knew Dziedzic from her own childhood.
“He was the sweetest man ever. My mother adored him,” Johnson said.
Devoted to ‘the basics’
Dziedzic was born in northeast Minneapolis, one of seven children of Polish immigrants. His father died when Walt was 2 years old, and his widowed mother raised the children alone.
His passionate commitment, big personality and political savvy are credited with shaping “northeast” into a formidable citywide force.
“Walt was truly a blue-collar Democrat; he was a giant,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat. “He devoted himself to the basics — public safety, reasonable development and great parks. … We could use about 100 Walt Dziedzics right now.”
Dziedzic graduated from Edison High School, earning nine letters in three sports. His children followed him there.
He played professional baseball and fought in the Korean War. When he returned, he taught social studies and history at DeLaSalle High School before he began a career as a police officer.
He worked 16 years on the force and was shot twice in the leg. He served on the Minneapolis City Council for 22 years and was a Park Board member, representing the city’s east side, for 12 years.
Dziedzic was elected to an open seat on the City Council in 1976 and served alongside Rainville.
When he first ran for the council, he vowed to bring a grocery store to northeast Minneapolis, and he did, at the Quarry development.
Opat called that Dziedzic’s “signature triumph.”
‘We did it together’
Johnson recalled how one of Dziedzic’s television interviews years ago stuck with her. In it, he said it was an honor to have a constituent call his office for help because it meant that he was viewed as someone they could count on.
Gov. Mark Dayton said, “Walt was a terrific leader for the city and the state. There has been no better champion for Minneapolis youth hockey, and parks for all ages.”
When he retired, Dziedzic said he was proud of a lot of things built on his watch, but that’s not what he considered his most important work.
“I took the people’s concerns and answered them whether I was in the squad car, the City Council or the parks,” Dziedzic said.
His retirement letter to supporters read, “It was a pleasure to serve you. We did it together.”
Dziedzic is survived by his wife and their six children. Services are pending.