Sam Riley was an engaging, lineman-size man who ran a security business and protected people in Twin Cities inner-city neighborhoods for 35 years.
Riley, 63, died of cancer Jan. 12 at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale.
"Sam handled [dying] as he did most things," said Kristen Barstow, his partner of many years. "He took it into his own hands and dealt with it."
Riley, raised by his adoptive parent, Jesse Riley, graduated from Minneapolis North High School, attended the University of Minnesota and served four years in the Army National Guard. He was trained as a paratrooper, but Barstow said he didn't enjoy jumps.
His life's avocation became caring for others.
In the 1980s, Riley worked security and as a bodyguard. In 1990, he started his own security business and was hired as a contractor by Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a Minneapolis provider of affordable housing and job training, mostly in inner-city neighborhoods. Riley later joined PPL as its in-house security chief.
Then-CEO Joe Selvaggio knew he'd made the right decision when he saw Riley subdue a suspected drug dealer who was accosting people outside a PPL building, detaining him until police arrived.
Riley was called "the mayor" of E. Franklin Avenue when there was a lot more trouble and storefronts were vacant on that reviving, South Side commercial artery, Selvaggio said.
"He rarely had to get physical," Selvaggio said. "He was so respectful. He called everyone, whether a drug dealer or executive, sir or ma'am."
Riley was a powerful, spiritual man who loved plants. During downtime, he would wander through the PPL headquarters, chatting with workers and clients, as he "overwatered" the plants, an employee recalled.
"Sam brought a presence and sense of stability to tense situations over and over again in [PPL buildings]," a rental-housing manager said in a remembrance. "It wasn't intimidation. There was always compassion behind it. He made our staff and our residents feel they were safe … and cared about."
Riley was known, if he wasn't on an early-evening call, for idling in the PPL parking lot, blinking his headlights and bidding good night as workers walked to their cars and the bus stop.
Riley also served as a liaison to police.
"Sam practiced community safety, engaging with our residents, program participants and students in a trusted way," said PPL CEO Paul Williams. "He supported our staff … always with a smile and a personal word. He connected with folks. Cops appreciated his perspective."
Riley, who often worked six-day weeks, rarely brought job stress home.
"He was very disciplined," Barstow said. "He'd come home after a long day and might say something. But we'd sit down and watch a TV show about ancient history, or a movie, or play chess."
Riley changed lives by being a man who engaged people from every background and took the time to show he cared, said associates and family members.
In addition to Barstow, Riley is survived by six children, Alexandra, Tyrell, Samantha Isis, Samuel Amon Ra, Atlantis Ma-at and Sekhmet; a stepdaughter, Jackie, and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be planned when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144