Bill Underwood was never the kind of Minneapolis cop who grabbed headlines or was highly decorated. He was just one of those unsung heroes who quietly worked day and night to keep the city safe, through good times and bad.
Underwood, who died Monday at age 81, was known as an even-tempered patrol officer who served 25 years, much of it on the North Side, on a foot beat and later with a partner in a black-and-white cruiser.
Born during the Great Depression in Washington state, Underwood and his brother were raised by their single mom in a poor south Minneapolis neighborhood.
He graduated in 1949 from Central High and joined the Minneapolis force in June 1957 at age 25, when he and his wife, Elaine, had a toddler, with twins on the way.
In all, they had six children, but one son died in infancy.
Underwood, a Korean War veteran, worked in the police garage, directed traffic and served on other details over the years. He worked much of his career out of the Fourth Precinct near W. Broadway and Washington Av. N.
“I suppose he might have thought it was romantic, but you find out differently,” Elaine Underwood said.
By the mid-1960s, police work was anything but. Social unrest brewed tension between minority communities and police. Hundreds of riots erupted in big U.S. cities.
On Minneapolis’ North Side, rioters firebombed businesses along Plymouth Avenue.
“We had to call out the National Guard because we couldn’t handle it,” said Underwood’s partner, Stan Lenart, 81, of White Bear Lake. “They were throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks and stones, and we couldn’t shoot.”
More tumult arrived with the counterculture hippies and hallucinogenic drugs; protests over U.S. intervention in Vietnam; and movements for women’s, gays’ and workers’ rights. Officers were spat upon and called “pigs.”
“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure,” Lenart said. Still, most citizens respected police, some stopping by the precinct with cookies and words of thanks, he added.
“He liked to try to be helpful to people, to try to give them advice, give them information,” Elaine Underwood added.
Holidays away from home were hard on officers and their families, said Elaine, who was married to Bill for 57 years. So were rotating shifts, when cops worked day shift for a month, second shift for a month, then overnight “dog watch” the next.
“He had a real good temperament,” Lenart said. “It took a lot to get him mad. He modeled for some agency. He was usually in the newspaper for the gas company ads, like he was putting in a water heater. He smiled a lot and was really a good-natured guy. But he was way tougher than his looks.”
Back then, there were no Tasers, and cops didn’t mess around when arresting those throwing punches at them.
“Bill wore glasses, and as soon as I’d see him take them off, real slow, and fold them up and put them in his pocket, I knew that was it,” Lenart said. “I saw him hit a few guys, and he could lay them out like nothing.”
Services have been held.