Former Cook County sheriff Lyght dies at 82John Lyght, a pioneering legend in Minnesota law enforcement annals, died Friday at age 82.
By: Bob Von Sternberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune
John Lyght, a pioneering legend in Minnesota law enforcement annals, died Friday at age 82.
Lyght, the only elected black sheriff in the state’s history, was the longtime sheriff in Cook County, which sprawls along the North Shore of Lake Superior and north to Ontario.
Tall and imposing, he was in office for 22½ years — or, as a colleague put it when he was voted out of office in 1994, “forever and three weeks.”
He was appointed sheriff in 1972 and quickly won the respect and trust of the county’s mostly Scandinavian-
heritage population. In 1974, he was elected with 97.4 percent of the vote.
Among the memorable events he oversaw was a resort fire on the Gunflint Trail in 1991 that killed seven people, one of the deadliest fires in state history. A Rainbow Family gathering a year earlier drew 10,000 people and accompanying chaos to the county.
When he lost his bid for re-election in 1994, Lyght reacted this way: “Well, if people can’t see the work I’m doing here after 22½ years, well, OK. I’m too old for this nonsense. I’m going to ... shovel snow for two months and see what spring brings.”
That, along with fishing, “was exactly what he did,” said his daughter, Barbara.
THE SON OF PIONEERS
Lyght’s ethnic heritage was highly unusual for Cook County. Early in his tenure, he was one of only 11 black residents in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. He was profiled nationally in newspapers and magazines.
“What he had going for him was a kind of shock value — a very large man, and a black man, in an area where people wouldn’t expect that of the sheriff,” said David Wirt, who succeeded Lyght as sheriff. “He’d walk into a situation and people’d say, ‘What is this?’”
Lyght’s parents arrived at a trapper’s shack in Lutsen in the winter of 1913, 15 years before his birth. For a long time, Hosey Posey and Stella Lyght were the only black settlers on the North Shore.
Drawn from their native Pennsylvania by a newspaper ad touting homesteading opportunities in Minnesota, the Lyghts “were very adventurous people,” their son recalled in 1987. “I enjoyed our lifestyle, and I’m glad my dad brought us out of the big city.”
Late in his tenure as sheriff, Lyght ran up against racism.
After his nephew was taunted with a crude racial epithet, someone spray-painted “KKK” on the high school in Grand Marais. “I want to put a stop to this kind of foolishness,” he said at the time. “This is not something the people of this town will tolerate.”
Information on Lyght's other survivors and funeral plans were incomplete Saturday.