Notes of a Native Son

For an immigrant kid from Northeast, Walt Dziedzic did all right for himself. His proudest accomplishment? That he never forgot where he came from.

In the world of politics, development districts like those in Dziedzic's ward generate goodwill all around: Big developers like Ryan get money in pocket. So do the building trades and their unions. Constituents get jobs. And politicians, in the press conferences and televised ground-breakings, get the credit. But Dziedzic isn't your typical brass-band politician, though he's happy to give me an extensive press junket of his ward. "I'm not the braggart type," he protests. "Nobody knows because I don't want them to know."

As he frequently does, Dziedzic professes a simpler motive for his interest in the district, one that springs from his own experience in life. "I always thought that a job was sacred--next to God. If you have a job, at least you got a chance. If you want to get a job Northeast, ever since I been a kid, you can find a job if you're willing to work. I can remember working weeding on a truck farm, picking potatoes when I was stronger, and I went to work construction with my brother when I was about 12."

In this age, it's disconcerting to find a politician who is true to his own mythology. "I don't think there's a phony bone in his body," insists Hofstede. "What you see is what you get--he's the same on stage as off stage. People talk about playing the game of politics--Walt doesn't do that." Dziedzic's ideology seems derived from experience; his political success hasn't come through the public-relations office, but through his reputation as a savvy political fighter, his persistence, and his fidelity to the old neighborhood. He's part of a dying breed.

Two of Walt Dziedzic's sisters still live in the house on Randolph Street where he was born in 1932. It's a small, one-and-a-half story in a neighborhood full of small houses. Northeast Minneapolis was then a working class, ethnic enclave. Immigrants stuck together in tight little communities stitched together by railroad lines and by the factories that offered employment. Dziedzic's Polish parents had immigrated at the turn of the century. As a child, he spoke Polish at home. His father, who built brakes for railroad cars at American Brake Shoe up on Central Avenue, died when Dziedzic was 2 years old. His mother never remarried, and he remembers his childhood as one filled with deprivation. He shared a bedroom--and a bed--with his three brothers; his four sisters shared another room.

"You can read any story about the Depression and know what it was like," his oldest sister Catherine tells me. "Everybody was very poor. We didn't have much food. We struggled." Walter and his siblings scavenged coal from the railroad tracks to burn at home. "We used to take the blocks out of the street and burn them in the stove," he remembers. "When the city workers left, if they left any wood or anything I guarantee you, they never had to clean up after themselves."

He was, by his own admission, a rough kid whose scrapes included an early brush with the law after he and some friends broke into and vandalized a Northeast warehouse. The boundaries of class and ethnicity charted a clear course for his life: At 8 or 10 years old, young Walter waited regularly on the corner for the farm truck that picked up immigrant city kids for potato-picking on nearby farms. The neighborhood was his whole universe. "If we dated somebody from the South Side," he remembers, "a lot of times you'd hear, 'You dating that Pollack from Northeast again?'"

In those days before television, much less cable sports stations, high school sports were a civic passion, accounting for the bulk of the local sports page. At Edison High, Dziedzic met up with coach Pete Guzy, who stepped into the void left by his father's death. He entered the sporting life with a vengeance, playing and excelling in hockey, speed skating, football, and baseball. He still keeps a scrapbook stuffed with clippings testifying to his all-around prowess. In 1950, Dziedzic graduated from Edison and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

When the fresh-faced teenager left Northeast for the farm-team tour, it proved to be his introduction to the broader world. The one he left in Nordeast, he says, "was somewhat like the suburbs are today. I tell you, this area back then was so safe--you hear people say they never lock their doors--well I don't think we did. You knew everybody. I could still tell you that's the Rosemeyers' house; I can name who lived in every house. This guy's dad used to deliver coal to my house."

It was also entirely white. "When I lived here," Dziedzic says simply, "there was never a black."

Leaving Northeast behind, Dziedzic was plunged into the world of integrated baseball. With the Dodgers, he toured the Southern United States by train. "We were going down South and I seen it said 'colored,' 'whites' in the fountains and all that, at the train station when we were going through, and I asked a guy, 'What is this shit, what is it?' I got a first-hand education on the way people were being treated." Before one game in Georgia, Dziedzic recalls, "The manager tells us, you know, be a little careful if you go for a fly ball over at the stands; don't be starting a fight or we'll get killed here. We were not exactly a beloved team in those kinds of towns, because we had the black players. I got a pretty good feel for the social issue that was yet to come. All that was good background for what I ended up doing, both on the police department and in this job."

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