At Barry Pankonin's Funeral, Hundreds Remember Plymouth Resident as Friendly Fridley Police Officer
The service for Pankonin, who died in an off-duty motorcycle crash Tuesday, was packed with police, firefighters and other first responders, as well as friends, neighbors and family.
In the days following Fridley Police Officer Barry Pankonin’s Aug. 21, 2012 off-duty death near his home in Plymouth, Fridley Police Chief Don Abbott asked city staff members for one word to describe the late member of their “police family.”
Abbott shared what he heard with family members, neighbors, friends, police officers, firefighters and other first responders at Pankonin’s funeral Saturday:
“Do you know what the number one response was? 'Smile.' Something about his smile. How deep it was, how warm it was and how genuine it was.”
Hundreds Celebrate 'Panks'
Pankonin died suddenly Tuesday in a motorcycle crash involving no other vehicles or pedestrians, only feet from his Plymouth home. The Plymouth Police Department's investigation into the incident continues.
Hundreds gathered at Trinity Lutheran Church in Long Lake to celebrate the life of Barry Pankonin—or “Panks,” as some called him. Law enforcements officers from Plymouth, Fridley, New Brighton, Anoka and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office attended the service.
Paramedics and fire and rescue staff also filled Trinity Lutheran Church in Long Lake. Also in attendance were Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman, Fridley Mayor Scott Lund and Fridley City Council Member Delores Varichak.
Special ceremonies, including a flag folding, were conducted by members of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association Honor Guard, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard and the Minnesota Army National Guard.
Pankonin was a veteran of the National Guard in addition to his 12 years of service with the Fridley Police Department. He was the first active-duty Fridley police officer to die on- or off-duty in at least the last two decades.
'A Bright Light'
Pankonin’s ability to see the good in others—even when dealing with “the bad” in crime in his job as a police officer—was inspiring, several speakers at the memorial service said.
“His eyes were always open, looking out on the horizon for the next opportunity to make someone smile,” said Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Brian Fragodt, from what he learned from Pankonin’s family and friends in the last few days. “That takes a special gift to live in the moment, yet always look forward to the next best thing—the moment to make people laugh and smile.”
Family members and colleagues said Pankonin always knew how to make almost everything fun and exciting. Words about Barry—"genuine," "dedicated," "honest," "kind," "compassionate," “a bright light," "a stand-up guy," "an all-American kid”—were repeated throughout the ceremony.
His personality inspired people to laugh, Abbott said. These same words and phrases about Pankonin were mentioned “from every corner of Fridley City Hall,” he said of his talks with employees around the city of Fridley.
'Focused on the Moment'
Many in attendance cited the times Pankonin, born in rural Redwood Falls, MN, inspired in them a love of country living—and how they taught Pankonin to love the city life. (He was a loyal Minnesota Vikings fan.)
Pankonin called his mother every day to chat, Pastor Fragodt said. One day she asked him why he sounded so winded over the phone, and he answered, “I was chasing a robber.”* Those in the church bursted with laughter.
“He had such a unique ability be so focused on the moment, so right there, yet look so forward," Frogodt said.
Brother-in-law Charlie Drummond read aloud letters from family members at the funeral.
In a letter to Pankonin after his death, Pankonin’s partner Scott Stevenson wrote that, like his mom always said: “When someone is as amazing as Barry, you don’t get to have them for that long.” (Pankonin died at the age of 38.)
Seeing 'Uncle Barry' Meant Something Fun
Lessons from Pankonin that Fridley Police Officer (and Pankonin’s best friend) Chris Knight spoke about included: “Laughter is truly the best medicine; don’t sweat the small stuff; and dance as if nobody is watching, or as if everybody is watching.
“Don’t leave anything unsaid. He always let people know how much they meant to him,” Knight said.
Knight said that the two were like “twins separated at birth,” and described Pankonin through Knight’s children’s eyes.
“Seeing Uncle Barry meant that something fun and exciting was about to happen,” Knight said. “He was always the first to crack a joke, even if it was to make fun of himself, just to make people laugh.”
He Added a Dimension
Pankonin’s mother, Judy Pankonin, wrote in a letter to her late son of the impact he had on her and on many others.
“You added a dimension to my life to help me always respect others,” she wrote.
Jokes about Pankonin were shared throughout the memorial service, in memory of his ability to make others laugh.
“He’s a friend who has your back, but can always crack you up,” Frogodt said. “I can only imagine the number of laughs he created.”
Mentions of Pankonin’s “bad” dancing, his parties with “ugly” Christmas sweaters and his love of country music brought smiles across the room.
How He Lived
“In uniform, Barry looked like every cop wishes we looked,” Abbott said as many laughed.
Stevenson wrote in his letter to Pankonin that one day, they will rent a mobile home and have “God’s version of We Fest in Heaven.”
Abbott reminded those attending the memorial service to support each other in remembering Pankonin’s life, rather than his death:
“Let us not ask, 'Why did Barry die?' Let us instead work together to answer the question: Why did Barry live? ... It has been said that what makes a hero is not how they die, but how they live.”
Pankonin is survived by his partner, Scott Stevenson; his parents, Wayne and Judy Pankonin; his maternal grandmother, Norma Hart; his sisters, Christi (Frank) Jackson and Carrie (Phil) Pederson; his brother, Brand (Marcia) Pankonin; and nieces and nephews: Carlie, Cole and Jake Jackson; Mitchell, Maxwell and Mason Pankonin; and Emma and Eli Pederson.
*This quotation was slightly different in an earlier version of this article. Thank you to the family member who emailed a clarification.