Former county sheriff dies in home: Trudeau remembered as inspirational figure

Trudeau as Washington County Sheriff, shown in 1994. (File photo)
Trudeau as Washington County Sheriff, shown in 1994. (File photo)


Star athlete. Decorated law enforcement official. Tireless volunteer. All-around good guy. Jim Trudeau was all of these while touching countless lives in Forest Lake and Washington County.

The well-known and well-liked local figure died Saturday at his Forest Lake home at the age of 73.

Man in uniform

Much of Trudeau’s sphere of influence revolved around his roles as chief of the Forest Lake Police Department and sheriff of Washington County.

The Forest Lake native joined his hometown police department as a patrolman in 1965.

He was already a familiar and popular man in town. The son of Fran and Kay Trudeau starred in football and baseball at Forest Lake High School, where he graduated in 1958.

He joined the police force after a seven-year stint working for Honeywell International Inc. In those days, officers often worked 12-hour shifts for $350 per month and no overtime pay. Trudeau had been on the job for less than two years when he was promoted to the role of chief. At one point during the transition, he put in 57 straight days of work.

In 11 years as chief, Trudeau oversaw increases in staffing and patrol hours as the city grew.

“He always looked at big picture and it was never anything for his personal gratification,” said Dave Schwartz, who was hired by Trudeau 1969 and followed him as chief. “He looked out for what was right and followed that direction.”

Trudeau became sheriff of Washington County in 1978, won three re-election bids and served until 1994.

“Leaving Forest Lake was hard for him to do at first, but when he saw what he could do for the county, it was an easy transition for him,” Schwartz said.

As sheriff, Trudeau left an indelible mark. His progressive nature led to a host of new programs and the construction of the law center which continues to house the department.

“He really kind of brought the Sheriff’s Office into the new age of policing at that time,” said department veteran Patrick Olson, now retired. “He had visions for things, and they never fell short.”

Trudeau guided the implementation of the department’s DARE and Explorers programs, narcotics, canine and welfare fraud units, and SWAT team, among other additions. His success in computerizing records led other counties to follow suit.

Trudeau’s commitment to law enforcement branched outside of the county. He was the first sheriff from Washington County to be elected president of the Minnesota State Sheriffs Association. Twice he held the same title for the Metropolitan Sheriffs Association. He served as chairman of the Minnesota State Jail Task Force, and two governors appointed him to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

Trudeau hung up his sheriff’s badge to become executive director of the Minnesota State Sheriffs Association and retired from law enforcement in 2002.

Trudeau was a graduate of the Chicago Police Academy, the National Sheriffs Institute at the University of Southern California and the prestigious FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

Champion for youth

The Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau is a hallmark of Trudeau’s local legacy. He co-founded the nonprofit in 1977 and was its driving force in its early years.

“Without him and his sustained participation, it just wouldn’t have taken,” Executive Director Jeanne Walz said of the bureau.

The push for federal funding to launch the organization came at a time when youth were being put through the often lengthy court process and jailed alongside adult criminals for offenses like smoking or cutting class, Walz said.

“He had great vision and knew how important it is for kids to be seen right away after they did something,” Walz said. “He just felt so strongly that it had to be a community response, not a government response.”

William Hutton, currently Washington County’s sheriff, joined the bureau’s staff as a counselor in 1979.

“Jim was already a legend there at that time, and by that I mean he was the go-to person, the one that gave it its drive and vision,” Hutton said.

Staying involved

Trudeau playing in an alumni game of the Forest Lake Lakers townball team. (File photo)
Trudeau playing in an alumni game of the Forest Lake Lakers townball team. (File photo)

Retirement provided Trudeau with opportunities to share his talent, and his efforts never strayed far from his past.

“Jim was Jim,” Hutton said. “There really was no separation.”

Trudeau once again became highly involved with the local Youth Service Bureau. He helped Walz transition into the director position, and he became a board member.

“Always, whenever he comes in here, he talks to the kids,” Walz said. “That’s just who Jim was: just always trying to do what’s best and right for kids.”

In 2006, Trudeau formed a corporation and stepped up to manage Castlewood Golf Course for the city. The arrangement brought about significant course improvements and the formation of a popular junior league. He and his wife, Carol, ran the course until 2012.

Trudeau also was a longtime member of the city’s Police Civil Service Commission and earned many community service awards.

As his health slowly worsened due to congestive heart failure, Trudeau continued to give of himself: Just last week, he was named Community Volunteer of the Year by the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

Inspirational figure

Trudeau’s many gifts included a knack for telling stories. Now, his friends and family are undoubtedly sharing their favorite memories of him.

A member of Forest Lake School District’s hall of fame and athletic hall of fame, Trudeau was a great conversationalist, friends said, mixing his skill with words and a presence that drew people in.

“When you talked to Jim, you were the person he was talking to,” Hutton said. “Just to see him interact with people was amazing.”

Walz recalls when she first saw him announce at an event. It was at a retirement social for Schwartz.

“It was like 20 minutes of stand-up, and I was just crying,” she said.

Walz took note and got Trudeau to serve as the live auctioneer at the Youth Service Bureau’s annual gala. This fall’s event provided a bittersweet memory for Walz. Trudeau, his health failing, called her from a hospital on the morning of the ball. The call was not to cancel, but to reassure her he would make it that night to fulfill his duty.

“Of course, he came and he did a fabulous job,” Walz said. “After the program he went right to bed and absolutely no one even knew.”

Trudeau’s personality did wonders in the workplace and led to a bevy of public service awards, many nominated by his co-workers.

“He accepted awards, but they never went to his head,” Schwartz said. “He was about as common a man as you’d ever find, and he never stopped giving.”

Olson, whom Trudeau brought on board the Sheriff’s Office in 1987, called his former boss a born leader.

“He was very personable; incredibly so, actually,” Olson said. “He carried himself in such a way that you were happy to go to work. You didn’t want to call in sick or anything like that because you might miss a day.”

Deputies working a case in a far corner of the county would often be surprised to see their sheriff show up in person, Olson said.

“He always set an incredible example, all the time,” Olson said. “You never questioned who the boss was, but he was never heavy-handed.”

For Olson, like many, his working relationship with Trudeau turned into a lifelong friendship. Their final conversation, Olson said, sums up what Trudeau was all about.

“My wife is going through chemotherapy,” Olson said. “The last thing he told me was, ‘Take care of your wife.’ How do you not look at a person like that and go, ‘Well, he’s the real deal’?”

Funeral details

James R. Trudeau’s visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at Roberts Family Funeral Home, 555 Centennial Drive, Forest Lake. A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at Maranatha Assembly of God, 24799 Forest Blvd., Forest Lake, with visitation one hour prior to the service.

Contact Clint Riese at [email protected]