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A life in the law

After 20 years that saw floods, murders and just about everything else, Dan Hill will retire Dec. 31 as the longest-serving sheriff in Grand Forks County history.

Dan Hill
One day after his retirement party, former Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill was back at work Saturday, counting off punches as he judged amateur boxing in East Grand Forks, Minn. Herald photo by John Stennes.

After 20 years that saw floods, murders and just about everything else, Dan Hill will retire Dec. 31 as the longest-serving sheriff in Grand Forks County history.

"He wants to be there for the people, and he always was," said sheriff-elect Bob Rost who takes over in January. "He's concerned and caring. He adds this level of compassion in there that can calm situations -- even in a serious, serious situation."

This past week, Hill looked back on his 44-year career in law enforcement that started in 1966 with the Grand Forks Police Department.

Hill, a Grand Forks native, had just come home from a 3½-year stint in the Navy mostly spent aboard a ship in Charleston, S.C. With a wife and child to support, 21-year-old Hill went looking for work the Monday after his return.

At city hall that day, the auditor told him there was an opening for a police officer, so he took a test and then went to talk with Chief Duane Knutson. During their chat, the auditor stuck his head in to say that Hill had passed. Hill called his wife on the phone, and with her consent, Knutson hired him on the spot.


"That same day, I walked home with an armful of uniforms," Hill said.

Early in his police days, Hill left the department to join the Border Patrol transmitting Morse-code messages, a skill he'd honed in the Navy. "After about six months, that got to be really boring," he said.

So, he went back to the Police Department in 1968 and eventually became an investigator. For two years, he worked with the local drug task force, cruising town and conducting stakeouts.

"I wasn't totally, you know, undercover because everybody knew who I was," he said. "I would just gather intelligence for the undercover guys."

In 1990, Hill, who had reached the rank of sergeant, was convinced by friends to run for sheriff. He ended up beating incumbent John Schroeder.

"I had about 70 percent of the vote," Hill said. "I was known, you know, so well by so many people, and I had so many relatives and friends."

Hill, who was in the Navy Reserve, was called to serve in the Persian Gulf less than a month after he took office. Mike Fonder fulfilled the duties of sheriff until Hill returned that April.

'Boats going steady'


The 1997 flood, which displaced the sheriff's department from its headquarters, tested Hill and his deputies.

"Guys were in boats, and they would go around and recover animals that were stranded here and there. And they were taking people out of apartment buildings downtown," he said. "We had the boats going steady, you know, for quite a few days."

At Hill's retirement party Friday, the head of the county's juvenile detention center, Bridgie Hanson, summed up Hill's demeanor when stuff hits the fan. "When we've been in crisis, he's just been even keel," she said.

Along with a certain calmness, Hill's instincts helped him throughout his career.

Hill recalled mulling over the 1998 murder of a Reynolds, N.D., man. At the time, investigators had not found the .22-caliber rifle used by the killer.

"One day, I was just sitting at my desk," Hill said. "And I got to thinking, 'There's got to be a gun laying out there somewhere.'" Trusting his premonition, he drove to the crime scene.

"I walked up and stood on the back porch of the house. And I thought, 'Now if I wanted to get rid of something, what would I do with it, you know.' And it was a .22 that came apart. So I could just see this kid standing there with two pieces and throwing one one way and one the other way. So I went out and started looking and be danged, you know, if I didn't find the barrel," Hill said. "So I marked that and went the other way. And be danged if I didn't find the stock on the other side of the house."

The discovery of the gun helped build a case against the shooter who eventually pleaded guilty. "I've been in law enforcement long enough where I'm thinking like these guys," the sheriff said with a laugh.


'A fair judge'

Hill, 65, belongs to the Lions Club and volunteers at his church. But one of the more visible ways he's been involved in local life over the years has been as a boxing judge, scoring amateur bouts.

"He's been known throughout the boxing community as a fair judge," said Eddie Obregon, director of the area's Golden Gloves program.

Boxing aside, Obregon said Hill, a longtime acquaintance, has always been approachable. "He's a common guy. That's why people like him so well," Obregon said. "He's not above anybody else."

Hill, the uncle of boxer Virgil Hill, said his only experience in the ring came when he was about 12 years old, sparring with other kids before pro-wrestling matches in Grand Forks.

"We made a few bucks doing it, and it was fun," he said. "Nobody got hurt."

Reach Ingersoll at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com .

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