It was at midnight Wednesday that Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows’ 35-year career in law enforcement came to an end.

He’d already cleaned out his desk for incoming Sheriff Tim Leslie. He’d already said goodbye and good luck to his staff and the deputies, captains and commanders he considered his second family.

Now, he was ready to bask in the sun and warmth of Fort Myers, Fla., where he and his wife have a small home.

“I feel blessed,” Bellows said. “I got to work in what I feel to be one of the really noble professions.”

Although Bellows served just one term as sheriff, he spent his entire career in the dual rural/suburban landscape of Dakota County. He was the first in his family to become a police officer when he joined the Lakeville force in 1980.

Bellows watched Lakeville grow from a rural community of 13,000 to a thriving suburb, and watched technology evolve from hand-held and squad radios to 800-megahertz radio sets and Internet-equipped squad car computers.

Weapons evolved, too, from six-shot revolvers to semi-automatic pistols with 15-shot magazines. As criminals got more sophisticated guns and ammunition, cops had to, too, Bellows said.

“If law enforcement can’t protect ourselves, we can’t protect society and that’s what it comes down to,” he said.

It’s not just the sensational cases that Bellows remembers when he looks back on his career. One of his favorites happened when he was a detective in Lakeville. There’d been a theft of $20,000 to $30,000 in tools and police had zero leads. A traffic stop led to finding a few of the tools, but Bellows knew there wasn’t much there beyond a possession of stolen goods charge.

After getting a search warrant, a friend of the suspect walked in, and Bellows recalled, “I get him to think I know more about the case than I did. By the end of it, we arrested four people and recovered [all] the tools.

“That’s my juice,” he said, “taking a case that had nothing and bringing it to resolution. That’s the one I tell kids about. Don’t think you can’t do anything with nothing: Even if you’ve only got one noodle, you can make a pasta out of it.”

Bellows moved into the Sheriff’s Office in 1999 as a commander under longtime boss Don Gudmundson. He was appointed acting sheriff in 2010 when Gudmundson retired, and was elected that November.

As sheriff, he’s proud that “we really have good service delivery for our citizens. We’re trying to do things to make their lives easier.”

He has also taken his role as a steward of tax dollars very seriously. Food costs at the jail are among the lowest in the state. He saved taxpayers $160,000 annually by contracting with private parties for nursing services rather than using public health nurses.

Bellows is 59, so why not run for a second term as sheriff?

“I seriously considered a second term, I really did. I just didn’t know if I had another four years in me. I didn’t want to get elected and not serve out the full term.”

He’ll miss the people most, he said. But he won’t miss the 3 a.m. calls to handle a crisis, and he won’t miss the cold.

“If God came down tomorrow and said you can do anything you want, I’d say give me a uniform and I’d do another 35 years … if he gave me a little more youth,” Bellows said, laughing.