Former Sherburne County sheriff remembered as a ‘towering figure’

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Former Sherburne County Sheriff Richard “Dick” Witschen has died at age 78.

Dick Witschen
Dick Witschen

He was appointed Sherburne County sheriff in 1981 and was re-elected until his retirement in 1995. Witschen died Sept. 18 after battling mesothelioma for the past 10 months.

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott said he’s saddened by Witschen’s passing.

In a statement, Brott said: “Dick Witschen was a towering figure with a booming voice and a steely glance, but in most cases it was the giant smile and roaring laugh that were familiar to his employees. Those in the sheriff’s office remember him as having a real aura of being in charge; he exuded confidence and had a strong command presence.”

He also was remembered for his dedication to his employees and others in law enforcement.

Both Brott and Elk River Police Chief Brad Rolfe recalled how Witschen and his wife, Kay, prepared and served a dinner every year at the sheriff’s office for all of the law enforcement personnel working on Halloween. Brott said Witschen also hosted an annual Super Bowl party for employees at his home.

Bruce Anderson, who succeeded Witschen as sheriff and served until retiring in 2009, said Witschen was a very well-respected sheriff within the law enforcement community and across the state. He also said he was a very good boss.

Anderson said they talked many times after Witschen had retired and he had become sheriff.

“He was a good listener and gave good advice when I was sheriff,” Anderson said. “I’m going to miss him.”

Rolfe said Witschen was appointed sheriff the year before he was hired at the Elk River Police Department. At that time Witschen was already a senior lawman, having started his career in the 1950s at the St. Cloud Police Department. Rolfe said the first time he met him he was intimidated.

“He was what would be known today as an ‘old school’ sheriff: large and gregarious, with a booming voice. You knew when he was around and whether he was having a great day or not. He was a presence and you knew he was in charge,” Rolfe said.

When Rolfe was a young officer, Witschen asked him to design a new shoulder patch for the sheriff’s office after seeing the one Rolfe had designed for Elk River Police Department.

“The sheriff gave me a plaque, thanking me for my design,” Rolfe recalled. “It was a very nice gesture from a veteran sheriff to a rookie cop. The sheriff’s office still wears that patch today, and the plaque still hangs in my den at home.”

Witschen was born Dec. 29, 1934, in St. Cloud. He graduated from Cathedral High School and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1953 to 1956. He married Mary “Kay” Womeldorf on April 22, 1955, at the Marine Corps Base in San Diego, Calif. When he returned to St. Cloud he followed his father’s footsteps and served on the St. Cloud Police Department from 1956 until he retired as assistant chief in 1981. He then went on to be the sheriff of Sherburne County.

Witschen was involved in dirt track racing for many years and co-owned the Golden Spike Speedway in Sauk Rapids.

A Mass of Christian Burial was held Sept. 23 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Duelm. He is survived by his wife, Kay; one son, two daughters, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a sister. He was preceded in death by his parents, a daughter and a sister.