Clay County sheriff hanging up holster after four decades of public service

Bill Bergquist is retiring as Clay County sheriff after 16 years in that job. He has also been with the Dilworth Fire Department for about four decades and prior to becoming sheriff he worked for other area law enforcement agencies, including the Moorhead Police Department, for many years. Dave Olson / The Forum

MOORHEAD — Bill Bergquist is retiring from his job as sheriff of Clay County, but his connection to public service goes beyond the 16 years he was the top law enforcement officer in the county.

Bergquist, 60, said it all started when he was little.

Very little.

"I've been a cop since the day I was born," he said. "My trike, I had a red light on it. My bike, I had a red light on it," added Bergquist, who will step down as sheriff in early January when the new sheriff, Mark Empting, takes over.

Empting, currently a lieutenant with the sheriff's office and also the fire chief in Dilworth, joined the sheriff’s office as a deputy in 2002.

He became a lieutenant in 2016 and, prior to the November election, Empting received Bergquist's endorsement for the job of sheriff.

"Mark is a very hard worker," Bergquist said, adding that he has shared with Empting some of the lessons he's learned on the job.

A major one, he said, was the importance of letting the public know about things happening in the county. That means being accessible, he said, particularly when it comes to media outlets.

"Everybody has my phone number and when they call me, I answer the phone," said Bergquist, whose law enforcement career began with a job with the Glyndon Police Department not long after he graduated from Dilworth High School in 1976.

And he wasn't alone in his pursuit of a law enforcement career.

Bergquist said that of the 16 young men in his graduating class, eight became cops.

His stint with the Glyndon Police Department was followed by a job with the Dilworth Police Department. After that, he went to work for the Moorhead Police Department, where he spent many years as the department's DARE officer.

He was initially elected sheriff in Clay County in November 2002.

In January 2013 Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist was instrumental in nabbing a suspected bank robber. Bergquist is seen in this photo shortly after the robber was caught following a chase that ended in north Moorhead. Forum file photo.

Bergquist jokes that one reason he may have won that election and three subsequent elections was that young people he met as a DARE officer lobbied their parents to vote for him.

Bergquist was a high school student himself when he began volunteering at the Dilworth Fire Department.

He said when he responded to his first fire call he wasn't yet trained to drive a fire truck, but because no one else was available he hopped behind the steering wheel of a fire truck and drove it to a home that was on fire.

He said he and another firefighter hooked up a hose and had the fire out "in about 10 seconds."

He didn't get in trouble for that one, but he didn't get a medal, either, said Bergquist, who is still with the fire department but will retire from that duty as well when he leaves the sheriff job in January.

Deric Swenson, now a Moorhead police captain, was working as a paramedic when he first met Bergquist.

Later, Bergquist mentored Swenson before Swenson took over the DARE officer position with Moorhead police.

Swenson said that after working as Moorhead's DARE officer for a time he came to understand the great job Bergquist had done of building bridges between the police department and the schools.

He said Bergquist put those same community-building skills to work as sheriff, particularly when it came to sharing unhappy news with families that didn't want to hear it.

"He feels their hurt," Swenson said.

Shannon Monroe, now Moorhead's chief of police, said on his first day on the job as a Moorhead police officer in 1994 he was paired with Bergquist, who showed him around Moorhead.

"Right out of the chute I met Bill. He's a great guy, so that was a nice introduction," Monroe said, adding that his esteem for Bergquist never dimmed.

"He's just a nice, pleasant guy, easy to get along with," Monroe said.

"The biggest thing is that he's always there," Monroe added. "If there's a community event going on — a fundraiser, a pancake feed —he's always been very visible."

Swenson doesn't expect that will change too much even after the sheriff starts his retirement.

"He'll retire his badge, but Bill will always be Bill," Swenson said.

A retirement party is planned for Bergquist starting at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 27, with a program getting underway about 7 p.m. at the Dilworth Community Center, 709 First Ave. NW., Dilworth.