It only seemed like everyone in St. Paul knew Benny Williams.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, for whom Williams was a driver, recently described how when someone approached the pair and asked for a photo, Carter was sometimes the one left holding the camera as people flocked to the beloved police officer.
That recognition might explain the sadness around the city in the wake of his death. Williams, the hometown boy who made good as a cop, died May 12 of unspecified causes after being rushed to the hospital when his wife found him unresponsive in bed. He was 59.
Everyone, it seemed, had a story about Williams.
Katie Vaudreuil, a social worker at Humboldt High School, where Williams volunteered as a mentor for at-risk students, recalled how Williams took one student in particular under his wing, buying him dinner when he earned good grades and paying for the student’s haircuts.
“I think he had too short of a life, but at least he can walk away knowing he made a difference,” she said of Williams. “People felt like things could get better because of him.”
Friends and fellow police officers said the longtime missing-persons investigator was known as a community builder during his nearly 27 years with the department. He wore the label proudly, according to Thomas Smith, the former chief of police in St. Paul and Williams’ longtime friend.
“We had choices in our lives, growing up in the neighborhoods that we did in St. Paul, about are we going to do the right thing or are we going to do the wrong thing?” Smith said of his fellow Frogtown native, describing his “piercing eyes” and a “friendly smile that’s always inviting.” “He wanted to make sure young people had the opportunity to change, like I did.”
The “Benny” that Laurel Edinburgh remembers showed up to greet a young runaway at the airport. Where others may have used the moment to lecture the girl on the dangers of life on the streets, Williams struck a compassionate tone, according to Edinburgh.
“He said: ‘It may be too hard for you to tell us what happened right now, but we’re gonna be there when you can say those words, when you can tell us what happened,’ ” said Edinburgh, a nurse practitioner at Midwest Children’s Resource Center, the child abuse clinic at Children’s Hospital.
Still, sometimes the stresses of the job wore him down.
Like the time Williams, while he was out working the case of a missing vulnerable adult, got into a profanity-laced shouting match with a stranger. It was caught on camera and made its way onto Facebook. Instead of sitting back and waiting out the ensuing social-media firestorm, Williams posted a video message the same day apologizing to the stranger for his actions, which he said didn’t represent who he was.
That was also Williams, those who knew him best say: earnest and self-reflective.
Back when the department’s ranks were mostly white, he was an inspiration to a generation of young black officers on both sides of the Mississippi. One of them was current Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who said Williams always had a willing ear and a few words of encouragement to spare.
“Even though he’s a product of St. Paul, he knew people all over Minneapolis,” Arradondo said. “When you look at peace officers that you would want to aspire to be, even when you’re a veteran officer, he was that individual.”
Survivors include his wife, Krystle; daughters Shannon, Chelsey and Ysabella; a grandson, Camden; four sisters; and his father, Benny Williams.
Services have been held.