Pat Willis volunteers to work each and every year at the Minnesota State Fair. And Grand Old Day. And the St. Paul Winter Carnival Grand Day Parade. And come October, he pulls a long shift at the Twin Cities Marathon, too.
At each stop, past the orange traffic cones and street barricades, at the end of long lines of honking cars and short-tempered drivers, stands Willis, a smiling, even-tempered sort who just happens to be St. Paul’s longest-tenured police reserve officer.
“Instead of a badge that says ‘St. Paul Police Reserves,’ it should say ‘Information Officer,’ ” Willis said while directing traffic at the marathon last month. “But, then, that’s our job.”
Serving as a volunteer with the St. Paul Police Reserves has been Willis’ job since 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was president and reserve officers still could carry a gun.
And Willis, who turns 75 in a few days, has no plans to stop any time soon.
“Yeah, you have to be patient,” he said a few blocks from the St. Paul Cathedral on a chilly Sunday morning. “You have to be. I mean, these people are lost. They have no idea where they’re going or how to get there.”
Over the years, Willis has worked hundreds of events. He has secured crime scenes and patrolled neighborhoods wiped out by tornadoes. He helped provide traffic control during the 2008 Republican National Convention, where he was given refuge by workers at an area hotel from the tear gas that police used to disperse rowdy protesters.
“You meet the nicest people doing this job,” he said, smiling.
He has done the job exceptionally well, said St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith.
“I have seen him at events like Grand Old Day, when he was at a strategic intersection and it can be stressful,” Smith said. “And Pat’s out there talking with people, engaging people in friendly conversations. He’s that friendly and people just gravitate to that.
“God, I wish I could just recreate that for everybody.”
The most senior of about 80 reserve officers, Willis has logged more than 15,000 hours, said Mary McDonald, a reserve event commander who has worked with Willis for 30 years. He served as chief and assistant chief of the reserves back when those jobs still existed.
“He is one of the easiest guys to deal with,” McDonald said. “You say, ‘Go do’ and he does.”
Joins the reserves
Willis graduated from St. Paul Central High School in 1958 and was a warehouse manager at the first Target store in Roseville a few years later. A buddy, who would go on to become a police officer in West St. Paul, talked him into joining the reserves, saying it would be “fun.” For the most part, it has been, Willis said.
But not always.
In 1970, after St. Paul police officer James Sackett was ambushed and killed while responding to a bogus emergency call, Willis rode patrol with full-fledged officers to provide increased protection for both officers and reserves. One year, at Highland Fest, a large group of men got very drunk and very aggressive, he said.
“It turned into a big fight. We were not the winners,” Willis said. “I was kicked someplace I’m not going to mention.”
Being a gentleman, he also wouldn’t mention what the officers who came to his rescue did to the rowdies who kicked him.
On another day, Willis was assaulted near Midway Parkway and Snelling Avenue “by race-car people.”
Despite some rough stuff, Willis said the job has been mostly safe. Still, he said he’s glad he no longer carries a gun. Reserve officers were once trained and licensed to carry firearms in St. Paul, and Willis had a Smith & Wesson six-shot revolver for his first six-plus years.
“There’s a lot of responsibility when you carry a sidearm, especially when you don’t carry it every day,” he said.
Willis never got the itch to become a full-time officer, he said, because he enjoyed his regular job too much. After Target, he worked for 37 years as the director of maintenance and security for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he still works part time.
The father of two adult children — his daughter was once a St. Paul Police Reserves officer, too — Willis has been married for 50 years.
“I worked nights, he worked days,” joked Peggy Willis, his wife. “I think that’s what kept us together this long.”
Seriously, she said, Willis’ time with the police reserves “has really been good for all of us, not just him, but for the whole family. Our son joined the National Guard; I volunteer for the United Way. We all do something. It’s good to give back.”
Willis’ daughter, Patricia Amrhein, is married to a Louisville, Ky., police lieutenant. They met while they were in the reserves here. She even worked with her dad from time to time.
“He has the right temperament for the job,” she said. “You can’t be a hothead. There isn’t an event you work at where you aren’t getting screamed at by somebody.”
During the recent Twin Cities Marathon, Willis pulled a shift with Mike Parkos, a reserve officer for 26 years, and Sam Judd, a student at Winona State University who’s been with the reserves a few months. Parkos watched as, time and again, Willis calmly and good-naturedly directed motorists away from the marathon route.
“I’ve had to bite my lip more than once over the years,” Parkos said. “But the more patient you are, the easier it is.”
Willis was asked to identify the hardest part of the job.
“Standing up all the time,” he said, smiling, as he waved another car away.