Before he became Minnesota’s first black sheriff in 1972, John Lyght built an employment history as unique as the Up North county he swore to protect and serve for more than 20 years.
Lyght worked as a fishing guide, logger, school-bus driver, resort caretaker, trucker, bouncer and even sold lift tickets at the Lutsen ski area until Cook County commissioners appointed him sheriff in his mid 40s.
“I always took any kind of job I could find,” Lyght said. “As long as it paid the bills, I took it.”
Tall and imposing, Lyght was born near Lutsen in 1927 and spent nearly all of his 82 years in Cook County — the sprawling, sparsely populated tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead, running up Lake Superior to Canada. He remains the only black sheriff ever elected in the state’s 87 counties, according to the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association.
Lyght inherited his gritty work ethic from his parents, Stella and Hosey Posey (H.P.) Lyght — a rare black pioneer couple in an area long dominated by Scandinavians. John was the 14th of their 15 kids.
His parents arrived in Lutsen in 1913, years before Hwy. 61 existed, when boats or dog sleds were about the only way to get up the North Shore. Leaving his home in Alabama to flee racial discrimination, H.P. Lyght met John’s mother in West Virginia. He soon went to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.
“He got to the stage where he didn’t like giving all his money to the company store,” John said of his father. So his folks explored homesteading opportunities in Minnesota, where the government would provide 160 acres if you improved the parcel within five years.
When the Lyghts arrived at Lutsen’s dock, an old-timer named Alfred Nelson showed them an available plot up the Caribou Trail with a windowless trapper’s shack punctuated with rabbit droppings. They took it.
“At the time they got off the boat, they had three children, a dollar bill, a sack of flour and a sack of sugar,” Lyght recalled in a 1992 oral history preserved on the Minnesota Historical Society website (http://tinyurl.com/JohnLyght).
With the help of a Swedish neighbor, “they built their gardens and kept raising those children,” John said. His father eventually used the money he earned working on road crews to buy land on Caribou Lake. His parents put the kids to work, running a seven-cabin resort there from the mid-1920s until World War II gas rations siphoned off visitors in the early ’40s.
Lyght was 17 when his father died in 1945. Dropping out of school to help support his large family, he drove trucks — hauling lumber during warmer months and cutting timber in the wintertime.
That led to a 22-year stint as a caretaker at a private resort owned by an Indiana glass company. He drove a school bus, sold lift tickets and served as a bouncer at Lutsen dance parties to make extra money.
A game warden suggested he become deputized in 1968, part-time, so he could help patrol Cook County’s 279 miles of roads. When the acting sheriff retired, Cook County commissioners offered Lyght the job in 1972.
He won his first election in 1974 with more than 97 percent of the vote and would garner no less than 69 percent support while winning five straight elections until he was finally voted out in 1994..
“I must be doing something halfway reasonable to be hanging in there that long,” he said in 1992 after 20 years as sheriff. During his tenure, he helped build his department from one deputy to a staff of eight and helped create the statewide Amber Alert system for missing children. He was proud to “tangle” with judges he found too lenient, calling them “pantywaists.”
He said his skin color didn’t hinder him even though census rolls listed him as one of only 11 blacks among roughly 3,500 Cook County residents in the early-1970s when he took office. “If you have the ambition and you have the push, you can make it,” he said.
“Black, blue, green or yellow — it doesn’t make a difference.”
He had more trouble dealing with the nonconforming old-timers he served. “These pioneer-type of people, they think the law’s their own law, and it doesn’t work that way.”
When one of those nonconformists raised an African lion cub into a 500-pound beast that escaped to find more food, Lyght had to “get rid of it” with his gun.
His no-nonsense style included threatening bribery charges when an Illinois motorist tried to slip him $20 at a traffic stop. “I play the game fair, across the board even,” he said, pointing to the time he arrested his own brother.
Along with his tough discipline, he was respected for his tender dealings with longtime residents. He cut firewood for a widow out on Tait Lake after her husband died, checking in on her regularly.
When he lost his first election in 1994, he said: “If people can’t see the work I’m doing here after 22½ years, well, OK. I’m too old for this nonsense.”
The father of three kids with his first wife, he remarried following her death. After his ’94 defeat, the Cook County News Herald said he retired “to attend to his well-manicured lawn and to catch as many fish as he could. ...”
“Lyght cut an imposing figure in his sheriff’s uniform,” the Grand Marais weekly newspaper said when Lyght died in 2010. “Oftentimes a stern look from Lyght could end a skirmish or prevent one from beginning.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.