Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

Split Rock Lighthouse manager to retire

Lee Radzak stands in front of the beacon at Split Rock Lighthouse. (Photo submitted)1 / 2
Lee Radzak and his dog stand alongside the gate marking off the private areas of the Split Rock Lighthouse site. (Photo submitted)2 / 2

When Lee Radzak took the job as the resident historic site manager at Two Harbors' Split Rock Lighthouse in 1982, he, and his wife, Jane, decided to give it three years and see how they felt.

"The three years came and we said, 'Well, let's give it five years,' and by then the kids came along and we wanted to stick around," Radzak said. "And it's been a fun job with a lot of variety and great people to work with."

Radzak plans to retire from the Minnesota Historical Society in April after serving as the site manager for more than 36 years. It also means he and his wife will be leaving their home in the lighthouse keeper's on-site house.

"It's been a nice commute, just a couple hundred-foot walk to work every day," Radzak said. "The flip side is that you never get away from it."

Radzak said the idea of having the site manager live on-site is twofold: First, it's a tradition for lighthouse keepers to live on-site. Secondly, it's a security and safety issue, ensuring there's always someone nearby to handle any threats of fire, weather or vandalism.

Speaking of threats, one of the newest Radzak has dealt with is photography drones. Although the historic site has a strict policy against the use of drones, he's seen a few fly dangerously close to the lighthouse.

"I've seen at least two of them crash, lose power and almost hit the lighthouse," Radzak said. "We're trying to protect the resource and keep it safe. And it's a big distraction for the tours, with a drone hovering over head."

One of the biggest changes Radzak's seen at the site over the years has been the advent of digital photography.

"Everyone has a camera now and everyone wants to get the good picture. It's a lot easier to do now," Radzak said.

Although Radzak mostly grew up in the Twin Cities, he had family around Duluth and remembers coming up north on camping and fishing trips.

"I have a very vague memory of coming to the lighthouse on family trips," he said.

Radzak had been working for the Minnesota Statewide Archaeological Survey, State Historic Preservation Office prior to this job.

"When this opened up, I jumped at the chance to move up here and take it on. It was a good move," Radzak said.

Since the Radzaks moved to Split Rock, several preservation projects have been completed and the visitor center and gift shop were built. Radzak has received a handful of awards for his dedication to historic preservation. In 2016, for his work at Split Rock and with lighthouse preservation in general, Radzak was named the winner of the F. Ross Holland Award by the American Lighthouse Council. The award is a lifetime achievement award and is the highest honor bestowed by ALC.

Radzak is also responsible for one of the most highly attended annual events — the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial beacon lighting Nov. 10. In 1985, on the 10th anniversary of the wreck, Radzak was driving back to the lighthouse and heard the Gordon Lightfoot song.

"So in tribute, I thought I'd turn the beacon on for a little bit," Radzak said. "People heard about it and saw it, so the next year, people showed up and we did it again."

By 1990, Radzak began putting together an official program, complete with a ringing of the ship's bell, called the muster of the last watch, and a lighting of the beacon at sunset.

"It draws a pretty big crowd, 1,750 this last year, in November, when the weather's known to be sketchy," Radzak said. "And it's a pretty beautiful sight."

What memories will stay with Radzak from over the years?

"Just the lake," Radzak said. "I could write a book about the storms, the early mornings and evenings and nights. The light never seem to look the same two days in a row. It's a pretty good work view."

When he retires, Radzak jokes that he and Jane will move somewhere more south, "like Duluth."

"I'm half-joking," he said, "but I do think we'll end up staying somewhere in the area. We'd miss the lake too much if we're gone from it too long."

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. 

(218) 834-2141
randomness