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At 87, the Spitfire of Lexington, Minn., is still raising heck and singing karaoke [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-SRS-MINN-SPITFIRE:MS]

LEXINGTON, Minn. - The 87-year-old woman bellied up to the bar, sipping her usual: a can of 7-Up in a beer koozie brought from home.

Everyone here knows Betty Dockham. They also know that she has a corner on Patsy Cline's "Crazy" during karaoke. (Request it at your own risk.)

Dockham is a regular at the Lino Lakes American Legion hall, a short drive from her home in Lexington.

She's not the mayor, but she may be one of the area's best-known residents, a formidable force in a 5-foot frame.

Lately, health issues have slowed Dockham down, and her absence has been felt from City Hall to the grocery store. Neighbors have noticed the quiet. Some in town seem surprised to find that even she is mortal.

"She's so ornery, she'll probably live forever," said longtime neighbor Larry Murphy.

In Lexington, her omnipresence at City Hall is legendary. It may be all those decades of raising heck in City Council meetings or the years spent raising Cain in her neighborhood.

At 81, a property line dispute landed the widow in jail. Her mug shot appeared in Busted, a paper that prints booking photos. Her picture popped up in Busted's 2011 Mother's Day feature.

The mother of seven has drawn her fair share of critics as well as admirers, cutting quite a path through her town of 2,000, residents and city officials say.

"She had no problem telling us if she thought we were wrong," said former Mayor Dot Heifort, who was involved in Lexington leadership for nearly 30 years. "She has always been this feisty and opinionated."

For decades, she warned council members about traffic hazards, potential conflicts of interest in development deals and questionable city spending. Residents still recall the hullabaloo over a petition Dockham helped spearhead in the early 1990s to consolidate Lexington with Blaine.

It was all done, Dockham said, in an effort to better the town she loves.

"I tell it like it is," she said.

You may not find her at many civic gatherings anymore, but Dockham still makes her presence known every week at the nearby Legion hall for karaoke.

During a recent singing contest, she sat at the bar and weighed her competition. Performers belted hail-Mary notes. But the spitfire with the walker, the one who favors classic country crooners, didn't flinch.

Intimidated by these youngsters?

Not a chance, she said.

"I haven't even gotten started."

'I tell it like it is'

Even when she was growing up, folks in her hometown of Austin, Minn., knew not to cross the pretty girl with the red hair.

But that spunk had knocked her onto the wrong side of the law, like in a yearslong dispute with a neighbor about whose property ended where.

This protracted tug-of-war accounts for much of her rap sheet, with convictions that range from disorderly conduct to trespassing to building illegal fences. It also led to multiple jail bookings in the past seven years.

"We only jailed her, frankly, when we had absolutely no other option under the law," said Lt. Russell Blanck of the Centennial Lakes Police Department, which patrols Lexington and two other cities.

During one police encounter, Dockham, then 81, even tried fleeing an officer on foot.

"She can run pretty quick," said one neighbor, declining to be named for fear of retribution. "You can't make this up."

Neighbors say they have reason to be wary.

Murphy, who has lived across the street for about 30 years, said Dockham has called the cops on him before.

"I can't say she's totally evil, but she's damn well near it," he said.

Softer side

Regulars at the Lino Lakes American Legion say Dockham has a sweeter side, too. They champion her tough-as-nails moxie.

Take Paige Bernier, who crossed paths with Dockham at the Legion soon after her own mother died.

"Don't cry, don't cry," Dockham told her. "I'll be your mother."

And then there are the moments when she speaks of her late husband, an Air Force veteran whose military service spanned multiple wars.

She carries his photo in her purse. With a girlish giggle, she'll tell you about her "sweetheart."

She tells of how they waltzed and did the two-step while courting. How they moved to Lexington after his military years and raised their kids. Reflecting on Adolph "Doc" Dockham still makes her cry.

In the years since Doc died in 2003, others have stepped in to help his widow, shoveling her driveway, getting her to the store.

Mike Grubbs, the Legion's chaplain, drives her most places now and helps take care of her at home.

On a recent Friday night, Grubbs stopped at the Legion to drop off his companion, whose wispy white hair still has a copper sheen in the right light.

As always, Dockham shuffled to the microphone and opened karaoke. Then, a man with kind eyes asked her to two-step.

Beneath the kaleidoscope karaoke lights, she took her place at the center of the bar, leaning on her partner, but still dancing.

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