They Also Serve Who Lie in Wait: Just Ask Missouri's Minnie Mitgang, the Princess of Process

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Minnie Mitgang looks like someone's kindly grandmother, and that's just what she would like you to think. In the course of her 20-year career, however, she has lied, cheated, gulled, bullied, put on disguises and even stripped to the waist to bestow court papers on people who'd prefer not to have them. At 73, Deputy Sheriff Minnie Mitgang is the dauntless doyenne of St. Louis' process servers.

Little (5'3") Minnie's escapades are the stuff of which legends are made. She once walked fully clad into a pool to serve a startled swimmer. Another time she borrowed a uniform and an armful of towels and passed herself off as a chambermaid. But an even more rigorous test of her ingenuity was provided by a golf pro she served twice in one day. She cornered him the first time by posing as a pro-shop customer looking at clubs, and accompanied by her little niece as a cover. Later, to present a second set of papers, she tracked her quarry down in a restaurant. When he fled to the men's room, Minnie went right in after him, but the desperate pro escaped to a phone booth. "It was real hot that day," Minnie recalls. "So I set a chair against the door, took out the morning paper and waited." Trapped, the golfer meekly surrendered. "I can't beat you, lady," he said with a sigh. "I give up. Give me the papers."

In the course of serving more than 700 people, Minnie, who sometimes carries a tiny bottle of water with her—"in case I need some tears"—has been punched, menaced with a rifle and threatened with lawsuits. But she has never been intimidated. "I got a lot of nerve," she says proudly. "It's never failed me. I'm supposed to be a refined little lady, and I am. But I take no bullying."

To put prospective bullies off guard, Minnie often tries to look as feeble as possible, decking herself out with a shawl, a cane and a wig to cover her reddish hair. Thus disguised, she has been known to sidle up to a target in a bar, strike up a conversation and slip him the papers. "Sometimes they want to buy me a drink to show there are no hard feelings," she says, "but I always get the hell out of there." A truer test of her gall came when she was called on to serve a doctor involved in a malpractice suit. Posing as a patient, she peeled off her clothes and provided a urine sample, then presented it to the physician along with the papers. "Oh boy," she recalls, "was he mad!"

Born in St. Louis, the daughter of a fruit-and-vegetable store owner, Minnie met her late British-born husband, Mark, while working in a government aerial map office during World War II. "He was all huffy-puffy, and he talked too fast for me to understand," she says. " 'I'll hit you on your head, you keep that up,' I told him." They were married several months later, and it was Mark's involvement in local Democratic politics that led Minnie to campaign for President Harry Truman and former Senator Stuart Symington. She was rewarded with a job in the county accounting office in 1957 and was appointed deputy sheriff four years later.

Though Minnie has a deep respect for the law, she has not always let the letter of it stand in her way. Once, pursuing a professor who was leaving town with his two small children despite a court decision giving custody to his wife, Minnie came tearing through the airline terminal, waving her badge and some court papers that later turned out to be unsigned. Though the professor and the kids were on a plane just about to take off, cowed security guards let her pass, and the flustered father was talked off the plane. "I knew good and well I didn't have the authority to take him off," admits Minnie, "but I saved those two babies."

An even bigger catch, in a way, was August "Gussie" Busch Jr., the crusty St. Louis beer baron who was trying to evict his estranged third wife from a cottage on the grounds of their home. While Mrs. Busch drove past the guards on her husband's estate, Minnie hid on the floor of the woman's car and cornered the bemused Busch at the dinner table. "I'm a deputy sheriff," Minnie said, handing him a court order to let his wife stay. "I bet you didn't know that, did you? We all love you, though." Busch merely smiled. "How about a beer?" he said.

How long can Minnie keep up her antics? "As long as I can run," she says, her baby blue eyes twinkling behind rhinestone-studded glasses. "I'm sure not going to sit around on my heinie."

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