Remembering Ralph Raffaelli

HOUGHTON – The Copper Country is mourning the loss of a longtime law enforcement presence and one of its top preservers of local history.

Ralph Raffaelli, who worked with the Houghton Police Department for almost 40 years, including 20 as chief, died Thursday at the age of 73.

Raffaelli was also active in spreading local history, helping put together the Houghton historical walking tour and a large collection of historical photos from the area.

“Ralph was a great guy to be around,” said Houghton City Manager Scott MacInnes. “He was dedicated to his community, and his family. He certainly had a passion for the history of the area, and that led into a lot of things that happened in the city.”

After working at the Copper Range Railroad, Raffaelli started working in law enforcement at the Hancock Police Department. At the time, he thought he’d give it six months, he told The Daily Mining Gazette in a 2007 interview.

It wound up lasting four decades – a year with Hancock, then 39 with Houghton. He became chief in 1986, a position he held until he retired in 2007.

Raffaelli led the department through some of its toughest situations, including a 1996 bank robbery where an 18-hour standoff culminated in a death and an injury. But he said much of the job wasn’t law enforcement as defined at the academy.

“You have to keep your finger on the pulse of the community,” he told the Gazette in a 2003 interview. “We’re in the City of Houghton, where crime is low. So you have to go the extra mile when people need you. If someone asks for help, or needs a ride somewhere, we do everything in our power to help. That’s our policy. It’s that simple.”

Alongside his police career, Raffaelli pursued another passion: collecting local historical photographs. When the city started developing a historical walking tour in 1999, Raffaelli put together a photo display for a local businesses. Once one or two businesses had them, other businesses saw them and wanted displays of their own.

More projects followed. For the 2002 Winter Carnival, the city built a 60-by-15-foot snow house; inside, there were 60 vintage Carnival photos prepared by Raffaelli. He helped with the city’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of professional hockey, and also aided the development of the Carnegie Cultural Museum.

Perhaps his biggest project was his large-scale photo exhibit at Dee Stadium, which filled the rink area for several summers. It came out of a smaller display he had done at the Dee for the Settler’s Ball in 2004. Then that, too, snowballed.

“He started taking it down after the ball was over,” MacInnes said. “We went back to him and said, ‘Let’s keep it up’ … the more he did this, the more people that sent him copies of photos, and his collection really started taking off.”

By 2005, he had amassed more than 2,000 historical photographs.

Raffaelli won wide recognition for sharing the Copper Country’s heritage. In 2002, he became one of two recipients of the Governor John B. Swainson Award, given to a public employee who goes outside their normal job responsibilities to make a significant contribution to preserving local history.

“Chief Raffaelli has selflessly given, and continues to give, time and energy to collecting and preparing photos for public viewing,” then-Houghton Mayor Tom Merz wrote in his nomination letter. “What began as a hobby some 30 years ago has indeed become a national treasure.”

Raffaelli received the Houghton Rotary Club’s Paul Harris Fellowship Award in in 2003. The Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce gave him a Sparkplug Award in 2004, and named him its 2007 Man of the Year.

MacInnes said the spirit of community Raffaelli fostered was one of the catalysts for the revitalization of downtown, including the facade grants and streetscape work.

“He was just a great guy, and he’s going to be sorely missed by this community,” MacInnes said.

A Mass of Christian Burial for Raffaelli will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church of Houghton with Fr. John Martignon to officiate. Friends may call from 4 to 7 p.m. today at the Memorial Chapel Funeral Home in Hancock and from 10 a.m. until time of services Tuesday at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Houghton.