Keith Mortenson

Keith Mortenson. Photo by Pat Christman

Many who go into law enforcement do so with vivid memories of themselves as tykes pretending to be police officers.

Keith Mortensen had no such memories. He’d been considering geography. Or perhaps law school. And then his mom made what he now believes was a wise suggestion. Instead of practicing law, why not enforce it.

“Mom suggested it would be a good, stable job,” Mortensen says, flashing his trademark (and ever present) smile.

So that’s what he did. And after the Waseca native graduated from Minnesota State University’s law enforcement program, Mortensen went to work for the Mankato Department of Public Safety.

After spending many years on road patrol, Mortensen took an assignment as a school liaison officer. In that role, he says, he’s found his niche. One of the signature programs is the cleverly named Cops and Bobbers.

With fellow officer Todd Moore, Mortensen created the fun summer program with a dual purpose: teach kids to fish while strengthening their relationship with youth.

The program, aimed at youth ages 8-18, has been wildly successful. It sprang, Mortensen says from the familiar Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Thinking quite literally, the pair created a program where enrolled kids meet weekly with the officers for a few hours of fishing fun. But as Mortensen tells it, a whole lot more than fishing goes on.

“Once you start catching fish,” he says, “It's just a melee. … The main thing is to just keep them busy with demonstrations and catching the fish. And Freezie Pops — give them one of those and they're just ready. But they get hungry by 11.”

Mortensen says anyone can sign up for Cops and Bobbers, but they also try to target a few kids they think could benefit from having a little structure in their summer.

The program also pools kids from all schools in the city, which gives the kids a chance to mingle and make new friends. Older kids who probably know their way around a fishing pole are tapped to help the younger ones.

“We like to get the kids that have never experienced fishing,” Mortenson said. “Sometimes they're at-risk kids, sometimes they aren't.”

They get other agencies involved, too, including fire department and the DNR.

Beyond that program, Mortensen says he just loves working with youth. At Mankato East High School, he insists they call him “Morty,” the nickname he’s had for years.

“I want them to call me Morty so they feel comfortable talking to me,” he said. “I also tell them, ‘Hey, if you don't like me because of my job, that's fine. But in order to get respect, you have to give respect.”

“They’re fun. They're just fun kids,” he added. “And just the strange questions they'll ask you. Do you pay for your gas? Can you turn your lights on and drive as fast as you want whenever you want? I just love it.”

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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