Walt Dziedzic on 50 years in public life in Minneapolis

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His father died when he was 2 years old. He played professional baseball after high school. When he was a Minneapolis Police officer, he got shot twice in the leg. Those might be some little-known facts about Walter Dziedzic, who will be retiring in January, after 50 years of public service as a police officer and inspector, a Minneapolis city council member, and–most recently–a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner. 


His background
Dziedzic grew up in Northeast and went to Edison High School, where he played football under legendary Coach Pete Guzy. He also played hockey and baseball and was a speed skater. After one semester at the University of Minnesota, he said, he signed a baseball contract in 1951 to play professional ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. “That was the original team, before they moved to Los Angeles,” he said. “They were the first team to allow blacks.”


He went into the service in 1953, serving in Korea in an Army artillery division, 7th Infantry, 49th Hill Battalion. “I don’t hear very well because of the artillery during the war,” he said.


When he came back from the Army in 1955 he went back to pro ball, but “it wasn’t the same. I’d missed a couple of years. I felt I’d better get along and get an education.” He enrolled at the College of St. Thomas, intending to become a teacher. After graduation, he taught at DeLaSalle High School for a year in 1960-61, but the job didn’t pay a lot, he said. When he married his wife, Patricia, in 1961, he learned that the police department was hiring and salaries were higher than teaching.


“As a rookie, I went right to the East Side; I stayed at the 2nd Precinct about 10 years.”


The shooting
In 1973, he was working off duty at a dance club called Duffy’s at 26th Street and 26th Avenue in South Minneapolis. “It had two dance floors and a revolving stage. All the top bands played there; 800 people would go there a night. There were always about three cops working there.”


Dziedzic said he tried to quiet two argumentative customers who started scuffling with the manager and got “marched out” by one of the bouncers. “I ended up outside alone with these two guys and one of them, a truck driver from New York, pulled out his gun. The other guy, a salesman, was clinging to me and I was trying to get my gun out. By that time, the guy is shooting me.


“He hit me two times in the leg. I was lucky; they weren’t hard jacketed bullets and the wounds were through and through; the bullets didn’t hit any bones. I fell down and fired back six shots at him from the ground, but I missed him. It was winter; I could see the bullets chip the ice on the ground. The truck driver later told one of the cops that he felt one of my bullets go through his hair.”


Dziedzic needed a cartilage operation and said his recovery took about five months, during which time he was promoted to sergeant. The injury left lasting damage, he added. “I’ve had two knee replacements and a hip replacement, all [permanent damage] from the shooting.”


He was appointed Inspector of Police, then Lieutenant investigator, and became a burglary detective. In 1976, after 16 years on the police force, and after the well-liked Sam Sivanich gave up the First Ward council seat to become a Hennepin County Board Commissioner, Dziedzic decided to run for alderman.


The city council
Dave Hill of Sun Newspapers wrote in a May 19, 1976 story that Dziedzic “was a campaign manager’s dream. All the ingredients are there. Born and raised in Northeast Minneapolis, working while still a schoolboy to help his widowed mother raise seven children, a high school athlete par excellence, several years as a professional baseball player, service in Korea, a degree from St. Thomas and a stint as a high school teacher, 14 years on the police force with commendations for bravery and promotions for excellence, a wife and six kids, and a whole fistful of community and civic activities.”


Dziedzic said he ran because although he helped a lot of people from a squad car, “I figured I could help a hell of a lot more people as an alderman. It turned out that I could. A lot of times people looked down on this community, saying that Northeast had all the industry and the immigrants and the bars. It was institutionalized prejudice.


“I thought one thing we needed was a nice big grocery store. Northeast only had some medium-sized convenience stores at the time.” Several deals fell through during his tenure, including one with Country Club (“We shook hands with the developer for a [new, large] store at Lowry and Central and two weeks later he died of a heart attack. Two years after that, the whole chain went down the tubes.”) and another with Cub, for a store at 18th and Central avenues. “Three weeks before signing, they pulled out, saying we didn’t have the right social mix. Then NRP [Neighborhood Revitalization Program] started up, and we started looking at the Quarry area. I went to Carl Kroening and Jim Rice at the Legislature for help cleaning up the land, which had been a dump.”


He said 5th Ward Council Member Jackie Cherryhomes attended a particularly contentious Northeast meeting about the Quarry and said that in the 5th Ward, “We would kill for a project like this on the North Side.” Her support helped sway the crowd in favor of building the Quarry Shopping Center, Dziedzic said.


“The only promise I ever made when I first ran was to help get a grocery store in here. I wanted to reduce people’s cost of living so they could pay super market rates instead of convenience store rates. When I look back, that’s probably the one thing I wanted to do; that shopping center uplifted the spirit of the community.”


Dziedzic is still bitter about some funding that got away: when Northeast resident Emma Howe died and left $40 million to the community for a YMCA, the Y officials opted to put the money toward a new facility in Coon Rapids, instead. “Emma Howe would roll in her grave, if she knew that money didn’t go to Northeast,” Dziedzic said.


Dziedzic points to many accomplishments in Northeast during his 20 years as First Ward City Council member, including the renovation of the 2nd Precinct Police Station on Central Avenue, the building of the Edison Youth Hockey Civic Arena at 1234 Central Ave. NE, and the National Guard Armory on Broadway, after the National Guard moved out of the downtown Minneapolis armory.


He ran for the park board in 1997, saying that the park board’s commitment to recreation programs wasn’t what it should be. His accomplishments with the parks, he said, include getting private money from Barbara and Jim Lupient to fund a water park in Northeast Park, starting the off-leash dog parks (including one at Columbia Park in Northeast) and getting the domed gymnasium and new park building at Bottineau Park on 22nd Avenue NE.


The Park Board now owns the Edison Youth Hockey ice arena, he added; it was renamed Northeast Ice Arena; the ice is gone part of the year so it can be used for other sports, such as soccer.


“It is well used,” he said. “The park board has plumbers and electricians. When there are slow periods, the tradesmen can come in and fix whatever needs to be fixed. It’s finally coming around, and is getting to be one of the best rinks in the city.”


He said he has been disappointed about the disappearance of city skating rinks and the fading popularity of ice hockey. “I thought I could revive ice hockey in the city. But not enough kids are skating. Too many of them are playing on computers. That’s why you have the obesity crisis. We went from 65 rinks in the city to 22 last year.”


Dziedzic said that he has learned, through the years, to treat his constituents well. “When I was on the council I was like the family doctor: I made house calls. You have to treat people well. When people call you, they don’t want you to tell them to call somebody else. You have to handle it yourself. I made three way calls, and got everybody in on solving a problem. If you do that enough, people will call you. I even got calls from people who weren’t in my ward.”


He said working in Northeast has been a terrific experience. “People in Northeast aren’t grabby, asking for the world.”


Will he miss being in public service? “Of course I will,” he said. “You can’t do something this long without missing it.”


Others talk about Walt
Former city council member Don Risk, who lives in Northeast, said his initial encounters with Dziedzic weren’t that friendly because Dziedzic defeated Risk’s son, who was also running for the First Ward seat. Through the years, however, “He did exactly what I did; his concern was for the community and its people. He’s a good guy. He doesn’t just ignore you. He’d tell you either why he could or couldn’t do something.


“Just because he’s retiring doesn’t mean he won’t be involved in things,” Risk added.


Former Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede said that he has known Dziedzic for years, as a police officer, a neighbor and a politician. “When I ran for mayor there was a group of policemen who were all college graduates, and he was one of them. I supported them; that was the start of the job becoming more professional and sophisticated.


“When he ran for alderman, labor didn’t endorse him,” Hofstede said. “I said, ‘I will support Walt,’ and up went the lawn signs. When he won, we helped the first black in the history of the city, Van White, get elected to city council. We played a role in making sure that people understood Van would be a good council member.


“Walter understood that you have to take care of your constituents. He has been a very conscientious public servant. When he leaves public service and people look back at his tenure, they will see that there aren’t many people who had that kind of record.


“Northeast should be very proud of him,” Hofstede said. “He’ll be missed.”


Michael Rainville, past president of the St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization (STAWNO), said that Dziedzic and Rainville’s father Pat, who was a year older than Dziedzic, played football and baseball at Edison together. “I’ve known him all my life. A lot of people don’t know what a really great baseball player he was, back when we had 12 major leagues. One of his claims to fame is playing catch with Jackie Robinson in training camp.


“Walt is part of the fabric of Northeast,” Rainville added. “When I was young and starting out in STAWNO, he was the city council member in the ward [1st Ward] next to mine [3rd Ward]. I worked to get streetlights along Third Avenue NE and next to Boom Island. We needed to get the three council members in that area—Jackie Cherryhomes, Sandra Hilary and Walter—to agree on it and work together. It wasn’t an easy project; not all the neighbors wanted to pay the assessment. He helped make it happen, and helped find some money to help defray the costs on the residents. I got to see his leadership skills first-hand. We were only the second district in the city at the time to get pedestrian-level streetlights.”


Dziedzic also helped the St. Anthony East Neighborhood Association (SAENA) and STAWNO get a grant, in the 1990s, for police bike patrols in the neighborhoods. “We got a one-year allocation of $65,000 passed in the council, but Mayor Don Fraser vetoed it. We asked Walt Dziedzic to make a motion to override the mayor’s veto. Walt took the time to explain to us how things worked in the city. We had signs made to bring to the meeting that said, ‘Keep Northeast Safe.’ He suggested that we bring some kids with us to the meeting. One by one, the council members got on board; they overrode the veto 13 to nothing.”


Rainville said things between them didn’t always go so well: “There were other times I asked for help and he didn’t give it to me. He has his own mindset about what’s good for the community.”


When Dziedzic was elected to the park board, he became a leading advocate of turning the B.F. Nelson site (on Marshall Street in Northeast) into a park. “He championed the neighborhood’s efforts to clean up the site,” Rainville said. “We got state and county funding for the project. He always had the patience to explain to me how one level of government worked with another. He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid of government. They’re your friends. It’s all about the funding.’


“I think that even after he retires, he’ll always be doing something for the parks and for the kids,” Rainville said. “As rough and gruff as he can be, he has a soft spot in his heart for children and for Northeast. He has never left his roots.”


Tom Bordwell was the 1st Ward city council aide for 20 years; he said Dziedzic hired him when he was a student. “He said to me, ‘Have you ever worked in an office before?’ I said ‘No.’ But I had lived across the street from Sam Sivanich’s sister, so I had a general idea of what an alderman’s job was. I started as an intern for him in April, 1977 and worked with him until 1997, when he decided to run for the park board.”


What was the job like? “There was something new every day. Being around Walter was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. He epitomizes being a public servant. The city was dealing with some major issues in those years, such as considering building the Metrodome and rebuilding Nicollet Mall downtown. He was involved in those decisions, and always also had projects in his own area. We really worked hard to get the financing in place for the hockey arena. The Quarry Shopping Center took some doing; it took a lot of persistence on his part to get it done.


“He started the project to remodel and add onto the police 2nd Precinct building [on Central Avenue],” Bordwell said. “The chief was not supportive of that, and so we worked with an architect to do a rendering. Walter’s feeling was that people would be more in favor of a project if they could see what it was going to look like. He was right; once there was a visual, the support for it grew.


“Art-A-Whirl started with Walter,” Bordwell added. “A lot of people thought that because of his athletics, that would have been where his focus was—and he was one of the founders of the Edison Sports Foundation—but he did other things, too. He had a way of reaching people, especially those who were struggling a little bit and needed an advocate. He would champion them.


“We went through a lot politically, and some of those battles could get pretty nasty. Walter always kept his head up and kept going forward. He kept his eye on his vision. He is a very unique politician, and he never lost an election.


He said Dziedzic received some recognition from the city (“We got about an eighth of a mile”) when city officials named a portion of 18th Avenue NE behind the Quarry Shopping Center Dziedzic Avenue.


“There are a lot of people who will never know Walt, who will still benefit from things he worked on,” Bordwell said. “They will last, and people will enjoy them.”