'Bigger-than-life' former St. Croix County sheriff remembered

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HUDSON — Charles "Charlie" Grant was a multi-tasker long before the term was en vogue.

He demonstrated that ability in the early 1970s when, as St. Croix County's sheriff and operator of the department's lone squad, he used the vehicle for double duty on a prisoner transport.

Grant needed to drive a convict from Hudson to prison in Waupun. But he also needed to bring his family to Green Bay for a Packers game.

His solution: Put the three kids in the back of the car with the convict.

Vera Grant rode in the front with her husband and, nearly 50 years later, recalled the unusual carpool ride.

"I'm sure the prisoner was ready to jump out," she joked, recalling how her children chatted up the man bound for the state penitentiary.

Memories like those are still vivid for Vera as she recalled her late husband, who died Aug. 22 at age 86. The couple lived in Hammond.

Besides serving as sheriff from 1964 to 1981, Grant was a longtime St. Croix County Board supervisor and a member of the county's transportation committee from 1986-1991 and 1993-2010.

"He was a bigger-than-life person in the community," said Sheriff Scott Knudson, who got to know his predecessor well over the years, including through the St. Croix County American Legion Posts Golf Tournament, which Grant founded.

Knudson remembered Grant as a "take-charge person." "You knew Charlie was there" when he walked into a room, he said.

Yet for the commanding presence Grant cultivated in his years as a cop, he came into the job as a law-enforcement greenhorn.

After all, he got elected on a dare.

Grant was a county highway worker at the time and his coworkers goaded him into running for the office. He took the dare, even though "he didn't think he had a chance," Vera said.

So when the election results came in, Grant hadn't bothered sitting by the phone; Vera said the news was delivered to him while he was sitting at a local bar.

That ushered in a new way of life for Grant. His very first case was a murder — a farmer who'd been killed by his hired man, who tried making it look like a suicide. "Charlie had no idea what to do," Vera said.

Grant had served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict, but his only experience in law enforcement had come from moonlighting as a county dance inspector, a role that meant being a glorified bar-bouncer; dance inspectors enforced permits for dances held in the county and dealt with rowdy patrons, Vera explained.

To solve the murder case, Grant turned to Pierce County Sheriff Roy Simonson for help. The suspect was eventually convicted in the case, Knudson noted.

Grant and Vera married in 1967, one year after he'd won his first re-election. The marriage meant a major change in her life as well.

"I became 'missus' and 'undersheriff' all in one day," Vera said.

Part of that job meant cooking and serving food to inmates of the jail, which had a 26-person capacity at the time. Vera made each meal from scratch after learning the ropes of the job from her predecessor. She remembered feeding the faces of young Minnesotans who, while taking advantage of Wisconsin's later bar hours, would find themselves in trouble.

Come Sunday mornings, those hung-over inmates would be lined up at the jail "looking pretty dejected," Vera said.

While rides like the one with the family and the prisoner weren't common, such experiences weren't unheard of, she explained. Vera described being handcuffed to a female prisoner on a different drive to an eastern Wisconsin penitentiary.

"That was just the way we did it," she said, noting that she was a stand-in that day for the jail's "matron," whose role meant tending to female inmates.

Grant would go on to win eight elections — the sheriff's office was voted on every two years until the early 2000s, Knudson noted — and grew a staff that gave many people their start in law enforcement.

Vera said he always ran as a Democrat, but generally embraced the party more as a necessity than a passion.

Along the way, Grant launched youth-oriented programs that gave disadvantaged children opportunities like barbecues at the JR Ranch, trips to Twins games, boat rides and visits to the Duluth-Superior area. Vera said Grant was also proud to serve as youth chairman of the local American Legion post.

"He kind of set the bar for community service — reaching out to the youth," Knudson said.

Even after leaving office, Grant stayed close to county government.

"He loved the highway department," Vera said.

Grant, who grew up in River Falls, also served on the Hammond Village board. Vera said in all, Grant ran in 27 separate elections in his life.

"That, in and of itself, is telling," she said. "He enjoyed working with people."

Vera and Grant's survivors, which include daughter Marla (Carl) Burton, son, Charles T. (Heather) Grant, and daughter Holly (Brian) Moore, spread his ashes at the family's cabin outside Spooner. A funeral was held Aug. 27 in Hammond.