Patt Adair’s portrait hangs at the state prison in St. Cloud next to a long line of stern-faced former wardens. Smiling and wearing a touch of makeup, Adair isn’t notable just because she’s the first woman. She also ushered in a new era — collaborative, respectful, open to new ideas — at the St. Cloud prison.
“She treated everybody the same, up and down the ladder,” said Connie Roerich, a fellow female warden. “[She was] very engaging with people.”
Adair broke new ground, becoming the first female warden of a high-security state prison in Minnesota in 1995 after a long career in corrections. The St. Cloud prison was an old boys’ club still reeling after female officers there alleged sexual harassment by male officers in a lawsuit and won, Roerich said. It took five years for Adair to begin to change the culture and gain respect.
She also was a kind, easygoing mother and wife who relished gardening, traveling and tap dancing, even shuffling through downtown Minneapolis as part of a tap-dance flash mob in 1979.
She died of cancer May 30 in her home in Big Lake, Minn. She was 65.
Adair was born in Minneapolis to Neil and Mary Wells. She attended Catholic schools, becoming Patt with two t’s when an elementary school teacher had to differentiate among four Patricias in her class. After graduating from Regina High School in Minneapolis, she attended two years of college at St. Cloud State University. She later received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Metro State when she was in her 30s, after years of moonlighting as a student.
Several years later, she was enlisted to design a parenting program at the women’s prison in Shakopee. She left Shakopee to lead a nonprofit, but her corrections career pulled her back.
The Willow River/Moose Lake facility was converting from a treatment center to a prison and hired her as warden. There she launched the state’s first boot camp, a program offering inmates reduced sentences for spending nine months doing physical labor and staying straight. Adair lived on the prison grounds, and she watched inmates run early each morning and sometimes joined in. Some still send Christmas cards, said husband Tim Adair.
She was firm when necessary, but believed prisoners could change and treated them like anyone else. “To her it didn’t really matter what you did to get [incarcerated],” her husband said. “You’re starting fresh in prison — it’s Day One.”
Patt Adair met Tim when her lifelong best friend, Mary Sieracki, introduced them in the late ’70s. The pair clicked and later married, with Tim helping to parent Patt’s young son, Cory.
For 30 years, their house was full of laughter. They honeymooned in Honduras, spent weekends at the cabin and took trips to Europe. Tim Adair joked that sophisticated Patt, who never swore and instructed her grandkids how to eat at a formal dinner table, “taught him how to behave.”
She didn’t see her foray into a masculine field as newsworthy.
“She was a little bemused by the whole thing,” Tim Adair said. “She didn’t quite understand what the big deal was.”
“She never went in there trying to do a man’s job,” Sieracki said. “She did it her own way. She was soft-spoken but she gained respect.”
For the first time, Adair opened the prison to the public for a day of tours, something she was proud of, said Tim Adair. She was also the first warden to allow religious events for inmates of various faiths — sweat lodges for American Indians, a Ramadan dinner for Muslims — and sometimes attended them herself.
She retired in 2011 to travel and spend time with family.
In addition to her husband, Tim, she is survived by son Cory Springhorn; sister Kathy LeMay; and three grandchildren. A memorial celebration is planned from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 19 at the Lost Spur in Eagan.