Minnesota State Fair police chief prepares for last fair

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Art Blakey, center, prepares his police force for the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) - For two weeks at the end of every summer, the Minnesota State Fair police force swells into the largest police force in the state.

It hires and borrows officers from all over - even from Wisconsin.

And yes: the state fair has its own police force. You need one to manage the nearly 2 million visitors who pour through the gates for the 12-day event.

For 37 years, Art Blakey has overseen it all as chief of police on the fairgrounds.

This year, at the age of 82, he's stepping down. He talked to Minnesota Public Radio News about his long career in law enforcement and about those hot summer days at the fair, which opens its annual run Thursday and goes through Labor Day.

Blakey's fair days started early. He grew up in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, and when he was still in grade school he worked at a restaurant at the fair with his sister. She waitressed and he bused dishes as they served three meals a day.

"Dinner would be done around six o'clock," Blakey remembers. "Then I'd grab my shoe shine box and go down to the Midway and shine shoes for a quarter."

He joined the air force right out of high school in 1954 and worked as an air policeman in Florida.

"When I came out of the service, policemen didn't get paid very much," Blakey said. "It was one of the lowest-paying jobs in the world - I thought at the time."

He tried to follow in his father's footsteps working as a railroad sleeping car porter, but "it wasn't my cup of tea."

"My thought was that in police work - lots of people say it sounds corny, but I got helped along the way, so I had the idea that I had to be able to reach down and help someone else. And that's why I chose the field." Blakey landed at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

"When I started working in 1972 as a deputy sheriff, I worked in Little Canada, Vadnais Heights, North Oaks. Some of the kids out there had never seen a black face before," Blakey said. "People would tell me: You're not going to make it out there, they're not going to accept you."

But soon, "I was working the school dances, the football games, the basketball games." At one point, the sheriff sent Blakey on undercover duty in narcotics. People called to say they missed him, Blakey remembered. "The mayor from the city of Falcon Heights wanted to know: Where's our Blakey at? What'd you do to him? Where'd he go?"

In 1980, he was selected as chief of the Minnesota State fairgrounds. It was a part-time position then, and he juggled both the fair and his work at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office for 23 years.

"You could take your vacation and work the fair," he said. "My thought was to make sure I give my kids a good life. It kept me grounded, kept me at the pace I needed to be."

Policing the fair was different back then. "We might go the whole 12 days at the fair and write maybe five police reports," Blakey said. Even as reports have gone up, "it's a safe place. ... Things are changing, you can't sit back and say nothing is going to happen, but we've prepared ourselves."

Blakey retired from Ramsey County in 2003, and his duties as chief of police at the fair shifted into full-time as the fairgrounds stay busy year-round.

"Seems like just as you're locking up the gates after the fair you're unlocking them for something else," he said. There are car shows and festivals and even weddings.

His youngest daughter Brooke is now a police officer, too - and they've worked the fair together.

There have been a few robberies, including the $100,000 beer hall heist in 2014. But the most harrowing moment of Blakey's law enforcement career came in 1996.

It was a Saturday night, and his niece called him up from the VFW near his house in Rondo. She worked as a bartender.

"She said, 'It's kind of quiet down here, could you come down and see me,'" Blakey remembered. "I threw on my blue jeans, it was 8:30, 9 o'clock in the evening."

As he was standing at the bar, three young men entered: "This is a stick-up, everybody. Get on the floor."

"I say: 'Drop your gun. I'm a police officer.'" One of the robbers turned and fired at Blakey, hitting him in the side three times.

"I returned fire, and he ran out of the back door and collapsed in the alley."

Both Blakey and the robber were taken to the hospital.

"He's in one room, I'm in the other." At some point in the chaos, Blakey realized he knew the shooter. He knew his family - his dad and his mom. They all came from Rondo.

The young man recovered and "served time. He served 12 years. Come time for parole, the parole department called me and said: Did I have any problem with him being paroled?" Blakey said no.

The man's name? It's Danny Givens.

It's a name that's familiar to many Twin Cities residents now. He's a pastor and a prominent figure at Black Lives Matter protests. He's also a regular face at the Rondo Days parade.

That parade rolls right past Blakey's house. One year, he was standing watching when Givens ran up to him for a hug.

"People say: How can you embrace someone who nearly took your life? I say I was placed on this world to do something __not to hate. If you're going to hate, you're going to go before they are. You can't hate people."

MPR News reached out Givens about his shared past with Blakey. Givens wrote in response: "Lieutenant Art Blakey is the epitome of community policing and the very definition of what it means to balance culturally competent police training with a value for human life. (Blakey) is a living Rondo legend and a hero in the Givens family."

Memories of all his years in law enforcement - on the fairgrounds and off - are coming to the surface as Blakey prepares for opening day.

He had surgery earlier this summer and the first thing he asked for when he regained consciousness was for his wife to drive him by the fairgrounds, just so he could see them again.

He's ready for one last year.