'He personified kindness and forgiveness': Longtime Minnesota State Fair police chief Art Blakey dies at 83

Art Blakey, chief of police for the Minnesota State Fairgrounds
Art Blakey, chief of police for the Minnesota State Fair, walks the fairgrounds in 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2017

Longtime Minnesota State Fair police chief and Ramsey County sheriff's lieutenant Art Blakey died Saturday. He was 83.

Blakey retired as chief of the state fair police force last year after 37 years of overseeing safety for the 2 million visitors who pour through the gates for the 12-day event. Earlier this year, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners proclaimed "Art Blakey Day" in honor of his years of service to the community.

"He was a Saint Paul original, a guardian in the truest sense and a good man," St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell wrote Saturday in a post on Facebook announcing Blakey's death. "He dedicated his life and career to making our community better, safer and more welcoming for everyone. He personified kindness, forgiveness and the best of what it means to be a law enforcement professional."

"Art was a great man and mentor to many people in our agency and beyond," the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office posted online. "He was also a good family man and someone who had great compassion for others."

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His daughter Brooke Blakey told the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Saturday that the past week had been "a revolving door of people coming by from every walk of life to pay their respects" to her father.

Services are pending.

Art Blakey
State Fair Police Chief Art Blakey and his wife with a police-car inspired SkyRide gondola at the fair in 2008.
Tom Crann | MPR News 2008

Art Blakey grew up in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood. He joined the Air Force right out of high school in 1954 and worked in Florida.

"When I came out of the service, policemen didn't get paid very much," Blakey told MPR News in 2017. "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.

He started as a reserve deputy in 1965 and was hired as a full-time deputy in 1970, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. He was the first African-American sworn deputy with the sheriff's office.

Blakey family
Art Blakey, chief of the State Fair Police, with his daughter Brooke and cousin Tony, who were both State Fair police officers when this photo was taken in 2011.
Molly Bloom | MPR News 2011

"When I started working ... 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 told MPR News in 2017. "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 advanced to become a sergeant and then a lieutenant with the sheriff's office. He 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.

Blakey's bench
In this view from 2011, a bench outside the Minnesota State Fair Police Department is dedicated to the Blakey family.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

"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, Blakey said, 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 to Givens in 2017 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."