Gordy Johnson, innovative former Minneapolis police chief, dies of COVID-19 at 92

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David Chanen, Star Tribune
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As a child, Gordon "Gordy" Johnson played at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, where he witnessed "Officer Joe," of the city's Police Department, helping out kids at the park.

When he grew up, Johnson decided he wanted to be just like Officer Joe. His future vocation choice was further influenced by his father-in-law, a Minneapolis police officer working in the fingerprinting department.

Johnson started with the Police Department in 1953. His first assignment was working the skid row areas on Hennepin and Washington avenues.

A 33-year career took him through stints as a sex crimes and homicide detective before his childhood friend Mayor Charles Stenvig appointed him police chief in 1971.

Before Johnson retired in 1986, he played a role in keeping the department's 911 system active, and in initiating the Internal Affairs Unit, the canine and chaplain corps, the Police Boxing League, outreach programs for children and a housing patrol.

He also developed officer fitness mandates and promoted the hiring of the first female officers.

Johnson, 92, of Minneapolis, died of complications from COVID-19 March 7 at the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital.

"He was always thinking outside the box," said his daughter Judy Johnson, of Maple Grove. "He was a very humble and simple man."

Gordy Johnson was the child of Norwegian immigrants. His father died shortly after he was born, leaving his mother to take care of four children. Gordy learned to be independent as a child and worked as a butcher and a gas station attendant to help out the family.

He graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis and enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. When the military tested soldiers for IQ, he rated at the genius level, said his daughter.

He attended Augsburg College in Minneapolis for a couple of years before joining the police department.

Before he significantly starting changing department policy as a ranking official, Johnson was being recognized for his work. As a sex crimes detective, he received an award from the Knights of Columbus for his efforts to reduce pornography in the city.

He later wanted to start either a canine or horse patrol. What swayed his decision was his own pooch.

"Dogs are people's best friends," he told his daughter. "Our dog would protect us until we died."

Judy Johnson said her father was proud that he never had to fire his service revolver. He served as police chief until 1973 and then as a captain until he retired in 1986.

On his last day, he wanted no ceremony. "That's not my style," he said in a Star Tribune article.

Five years ago, Johnson and her sister took their dad on a buggy ride tour of the old skid row area where he started his career. It was a beautiful day and people were out walking dogs and listening to music.

"Damn, I cleaned this up pretty well," he jokingly told his daughters.

Johnson was very handy and built several additions to his small 1950s-era home. He also was active with the Masons, the Shriners, the Scottish rite and the Salvation Army.

Johnson was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Patty. In addition to his daughter Judy, he is survived by two other daughters, Janet Maroney of Bennington, Vt., and Patricia Johnson of Flagstaff, Ariz.; a son, Richard, of Flagstaff, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465