Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Joining the boys' club

Female officer forged new roles for women on force

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Helen Woollard was the first female officer to graduate from a recruit class and be issued a uniform. In this 1960 graduation photo of Winnipeg Police Department class #56, she's in civilian clothes.

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Helen Woollard was the first female officer to graduate from a recruit class and be issued a uniform. In this 1960 graduation photo of Winnipeg Police Department class #56, she's in civilian clothes.

At first, when I called on Monday, Russ Woollard declined. He didn't want a column written about his mother, Helen Woollard, the pioneering woman police officer, who died last month two days after her 84th birthday.

He was grieving and he sounded angry.

"I was the only one seeing her for the last seven years," he said.

Three times a week he would visit a mother whose memory and ability to communicate had been all but taken from her.

It was Helen's 23-year-old granddaughter, Kristina Woollard, who finally convinced her father Helen should be honoured with more than a brief obituary. When we again spoke over the phone Tuesday, I had a feeling it was the outpouring of online tributes under her Free Press obituary that may have helped make Russ feel as if the police service did care.

That he wasn't abandoned.

She was referred to as a "trailblazer" by one officer, a "guiding light" looked up to by junior officers,

"A true inspiration in a male-dominated profession," wrote friend and co-worker Bruce D. McDonald. "She was the true meaning of a police officer."

"Another legend has fallen," added her former crime-division partner, Wally Rudnick.

Why was she a legend?

Before 1960 (the year Woollard became an officer), there had been seven women constables since 1916, when city council authorized women to be hired, initially to take care of cases involving children and women in distress.

But in some important ways, in the modern, conventional sense of a cop, Helen was the first Winnipeg female police officer.

At the age of 27, she became the first woman to graduate from a recruit class. You can't tell it from the graduation photo, in which she dressed more like a school teacher than a police officer. She became the first female to wear a Winnipeg Police Department uniform.

She holds another important first to her credit, as reported in a Free Press story from 1999 celebrating the 40th anniversary of what was to become 911 and North America's first three-digit emergency phone line.

The story also suggests why she wanted to be a cop.

"Helen Woollard, always intrigued by police work, was the first operator-supervisor of the system, which gave Winnipeggers access to fire, police, a doctor's directory, poison centre and ambulance with one call."

Woollard would go on to tell the reporter how that happened.

"When I found out this was going on and that they were going to institute this new emergency system, I applied right away," she said.

Her background made her the perfect candidate to supervise the eight other initial hires for what was then the 999 line. She was a former taxicab dispatcher. She knew the city and she knew how to operate a switchboard.

That was 1959. Less than a year later, she was a cop.

Seven years later, she and her female police partner would be publicly commended for their work by the police chief.

And in 1968, as a member of the morality squad, Woollard was speaking at a luncheon of the Professional Engineers' Wives Association.

Her topic? The role of policewomen.

It was, of course, an old boys' club of the highest order back then, and when Helen Woollard crashed it, she did it with the dignity, grace and courage that defined who she was.

In her later years, she worked in human resources, doing background checks and helping other women join the service.

Corrine Scott, who is now retired, was one of them. Woollard reassured Scott's parents their daughter would do just fine in police work. Scott went on to become a superintendent.

"I think she liked that," her 63-year-old son Russ told me, "because it gave her some involvement with some younger recruits.

"I guess what she would like to be recognized for is her ability to help others and especially the young, upcoming police-officer women."

But there was also Helen Woollard, the woman out of uniform, and that's who her granddaughter, Kristina, knew.

"I remember she was a very kind and loving lady and always appreciated little things anyone would do for her.

"She didn't have an easy life, and she never really got a break. She always appeared happy and always had a smile on her face, though. She was a very strong lady."

What the police service remembers is not only who she was, but the place she holds in its history that Supt. Danny Smyth expressed under the obituary.

"She holds a place of honour with the Winnipeg Police Service."

That's why she never really was forgotten.

And never will be.

 

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 B1

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