WALKER -- Cass County Sheriff Jim Dowson chose a law enforcement career because of the satisfaction of being able to help people.
He also admired his older brother who had become a police officer. That brother completed a 30-year career with the Minneapolis Police Department.
Dowson will retire from Cass County on Friday after 33 years here.
The Minneapolis Edison High School graduate worked as a constable one summer in Garrison and as the city police chief and only officer in Eagle Bend. Then he worked three years as a Stearns County deputy.
While in Stearns County, Dowson fell in love with that department's records clerk, Shirley. The couple made a big move north to Cass County, hoping to get time to fish and hunt like everyone else who moves north. It was when Bill Merrill became sheriff in 1967.
There hasn't been much time to fish or hunt since, Dowson said. He rose through the ranks to lieutenant, then captain before Merrill's successor Louis Chalich named him chief deputy.
Dowson was chief deputy for 12 years before Chalich retired and Dowson successfully ran for election in 1986 to succeed him.
"You just have to have a sense of humor in this job," he said of the survival tactics to overcome the potential overwhelming depression that can come. "You see some pretty disastrous stuff."
Dowson has felt as sheriff it has been important to be on the scene himself on major cases occurring in the county, not only to contribute to investigations, but also to support family members involved.
There have been some funny episodes he recalled, like the time a train and car collided in Walker. The train engineer didn't want to give his name or address, so Dowson told him he was impounding the train for his refusal.
In fact, Dowson, then just a deputy, radioed to the dispatcher to send a tow truck for the train he was impounding. That was enough for the train driver to believe Dowson was serious, so the driver gave his name and address.
No tow truck ever came for the train.
In one domestic disagreement case, he recalled a husband came home demanding his wife make oatmeal. The wife did, then proceeded to throw it at him a spoonful at a time.
When deputies arrived, there was oatmeal everywhere, all over the kitchen, he recalled.
There also have been some major tragedies in Dowson's career. The house fire in Remer that took close to a dozen children's lives tops his list. He also was working when the tornado struck in Outing and there was a train wreck between Motley and Pillager.
The sheriff's day does not end at 4:30 or 5 p.m.
As sheriff, Dowson said the hardest part has been to go home at night and wonder whether he might get a call that one of his deputies had been shot or shot someone else.
One such call in recent years was a close call he doesn't want to repeat.
Two deputies answering an apparent domestic dispute call in the Longville area opened the house door. The house exploded. The blast hit them. They sustained minor injuries, but could just as easily have been killed had some little things been different, he recalled.
Every call you get is a different type of call, Dowson said. Anytime you can arrest somebody and get it resolved successfully in court, it's good.
"There've been a lot of them, " he said, reflecting on his career.
The changes he has seen in society have made a difference, he believes. When he started in law enforcement, it was most common for women to be first homemakers and only occasionally have careers.
Now, both parents have to work and children are on their own for the most part from the time they get home from school until their parents get home from work.
Respect for law enforcement has declined. Dowson believes this is due in part to the profession itself. More serious crimes are going on as well.
The fact that dishonesty in the Los Angeles Police Department has led that department to travel as far as Minnesota to recruit honest officers highlights what is wrong today.
Dowson emphasized Cass County can feel confident it will have an honest man continuing an honorable tradition here with Chief Deputy Randy Fisher's appointment to succeed him.
"Honesty and integrity. Either you have it or you don't," Dowson said. "If you don't, you don't belong in law enforcement. Randy has been an asset to me in that regard."
Of the legacy he leaves for Fisher, Dowson said he thinks the younger men and women on the Cass department can respond well to service here and keep up with the growth taking place.
The challenges Fisher will face include expanding the department to handle increased demand for services. There haven't been additional officers in the past five or six years, he said.
Cass and Cook counties are the two fastest growing counties outside the metropolitan area.
"The jail is stuffed," he said.
Dowson came to Cass at the time a new 30-bed jail was added in a top floor on the old courthouse. A new 52-bed facility was built since he has been sheriff.
Now, the county needs either to build an addition to that or cooperatively build a regional jail with neighboring counties, he said.
The communications system needs to be upgraded, he said. The current system is 20 years old. Minnesota Department of Corrections soon will require upgrading to a better, single high frequency system that will enable instant communications among all the state's law enforcement agencies, he said.
Enhanced 911 and the rural addressing system the county implemented in the last few years has made a significant difference in deputies' ability to respond to calls promptly, he added.
When Dowson started in Cass County, the sheriff's staff flipped a switch at the courthouse that lit a light across the street to signal the Walker police officer that he had a call.
They telephoned the liquor store, then later a cafe in Cass Lake. That business flipped a switch that lit a light on the Cass Lake water tower to signal the Cass Lake officer that he had a call.
Today, both cities have a multi-person staff and their own radio communications.
When Dowson started, he and his wife lived at the jail. When Bill Merrill's wife couldn't cook for the prisoners, it was Shirley Dowson's turn.
She learned a lot about how much soaking beans expand, he recalled. "We had beans all over the kitchen the first time." She learned to calculate quantities for the number of prisoners.
The Walker police officer had a key for the jail to admit prisoners during the night while the Dowsons slept. Each morning they rose to count noses and figure out how many people they had to feed that day, he said.
Eventually, the Dowsons were able to buy a house in Longville when the Merrills moved back to the jail. Later, the Dowsons bought a home north of Walker where they still live.
Dowson and his wife have three grown children, all of whom still live in Walker.
Dowson came north to hunt and fish, but hasn't had time during his career. He even sold the boat he bought, because it was just a high cost insurance item that didn't get used.
In retirement, he hopes to buy another boat and use it.
His retirement political plans may or may not include running for any office, but probably will include lobbying in behalf of one or more of the state's law enforcement organizations, he said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.