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Remembering John Lyght, 1927-2010

Retired Cook County Sheriff John Lyght takes a walk around the property his father homesteaded in northern Minnesota 100 years ago. (1995 File / News Tribune)

John Lyght, the first black elected sheriff in Minnesota, served as Cook County's top law enforcement officer from 1972-94. He died Friday in Grand Marais and his funeral is at 11 a.m. today at Lutsen Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Steve Elam, police officer in Silver Bay from 1970 to 2000

I worked with John on many occasions. Our Police Department picked up a person who had committed a crime in Cook County. John came to our office to pick him up. The kid told John that he was going to plead guilty because if John arrested him, he was indeed guilty. He said John didn't arrest people who weren't guilty.

I remember the respect that police officers from around the state had for John. Many places I went I heard stories about John.

My two boys got to know John through my work. They both to this day talk about being around him. Their lives were enriched by knowing John.

He was indeed a gentle giant among all. He will be missed.

Don Davison, former county attorney and former Grand Marais city attorney

I knew John for 34 years. He was among the first people I met in the county.

Imagine my surprise, going into the Kerfoot's Kove restaurant, and being introduced to John in 1976! I looked at the faces of several regional sheriffs (they were having some sort of "cluster" meeting in Grand Marais), and being told that this tall black man was our sheriff!

When I won the election [to city attorney] in 1986, John was the first one to come to my office in January 1987. He had supported my opponent in the election, but he said that was all behind us: We had a job to do for the people of the county and we could not dwell on contested elections. And he meant it.

One of the strangest aspects to his being sheriff: He would try to "clean up" suicide or homicide sites himself before family members would have to see grisly and ugly scenes. I remember when a man convicted of child sexual abuse committed suicide way back in the woods. He and the chief deputy (Dick Dorr) went out to pick up the body, quite a trudge through the woods in the winter.

And a funny story: Once a black man from the Twin Cities robbed our local municipal liquor store. The guy was driving a red convertible and he was accompanied by his flashily dressed redheaded girlfriend. When he was caught, John gave him the lecture: "What were you thinking? My people (he meant his immediate family) are the only black people up here. You show up and pull a job like this, in a car that no one who lives here would ever drive, in a county that has one road in, and it's the same road out, and you don't expect to get caught?"

Another time I went down to the jail to talk to John. When I got there, he was handling a flooding emergency. John had a cell overflowed with toilet water. John had his rubber gloves on and he was taking gobs of wet toilet paper to a female prisoner who had stopped up her toilet. He shook it in her face and said, "Do you want to see why your toilet backed up?" She then meekly admitted her in-house misdeed.

One of John's favorite words was "foolishness'" as in "What's all this foolishness about?" and "How much foolishness does it take to do this?"

If John ever felt any discrimination, he never showed it. He treated people based on their behavior, not by their class, race, status or education. I think that's why had had the well-deserved respect of so many.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Kenneth Sandvik, who presides over cases in the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais and the Lake County Courthouse in Two Harbors, worked as judge with Lyght as sheriff for about 10 years

He was true-blue and a man of integrity. He was forthright and direct to the point of being blunt. He was a professional in the best sense of the word. He respected the judge and, by gosh, the judge better show the sheriff respect. I was very respectful of him.

Lyght thought it was a good day when someone was going to jail, because that meant the people in the system were doing their jobs.

He was a Cook County boy from Day 1. He loved the county, was protective of his people, the people of Cook County in general and the western portion -- those in Lutsen and Tofte, in particular.

Quotes from John Lyght

From "Cook County sheriff chosen as state's black officer of '84" in the Sept. 11, 1984, Duluth News Tribune:

  • "Black, blue, green or yellow -- it doesn't make a difference. If you've got the incentive to make something of yourself, no matter what nationality you are, you can do it."
  • "I'm not hot-tempered. I'm meek and mild. Whenever I talk to one of my clients, I always talk meek and mild and say they have an alternative of the easy or the rough way. It always seems to work the best."

    From "Two families have special stake in this region" in the March 7, 1982, News Tribune:

  • "I can remember what Mama [Stella Lyght, who with her husband, Hosey Posey Lyght, settled near Lutsen in 1913] used to say to us when we all left home: 'I raised you to go this far and you were straight. Whatever trouble you get into now is your responsibility.' "

    From an unpublished taped interview in January 1987 with Robin Washington, then of the Lake County News-Chronicle:

  • "We have never yet, knock on wood, had a bank robbery. The reason why we don't get it up here on the North Shore, it's one-way in, one way out. We've got the international border, that's the biggest trap you'd ever want to get into there."
  • "I don't give a care who you are. If you do wrong, you're going to get pinched. I don't play double standards. I'll arrest my brother. As a matter of fact, I have arrested my own brother."

    Asked what the rest of his family thought of the arrest: "They didn't like it."

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