In 1953, five women crossed paths when they were appointed as volunteer crossing guards for the Laurel Police Department.
Mary Wesley, Rose Mary Walker, Gladys Allen, Helen "Clara" Tester and Marjorie Hagan went on to assume duties of local law enforcement officers, carrying weapons and with the power to arrest.
The Laurel Police Department will honor and remember the work of the city's first policewomen during a plaque dedication ceremony on Aug. 28 at 4 p.m. at the Partnership Activity Center on Fifth Street.
Family members of the female officers are expected to attend.
Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin said Dennis Wesley, the grandson of Mary Wesley, brought the policewomen's journey to his attention last year. McLaughlin said he was researching this history when he realized the women were never recognized for their roles.
"I think it speaks volumes," the police chief said. "This is a prime example of something that occurred decades ago and probably not looked at as anything being recognizable. In the 1950s, that's amazing that there were policewomen."
According to the National Center for Women and Policing website, the 1950s was a turning point for women in law enforcement, including the re-establishment of the International Association of Women Police in 1956, as women pushed to enter and advance in the male-dominated field.
Today, Laurel City spokeswoman Audrey Barnes said, four out of 66 Laurel Police Department officers are women. In Howard County, police spokeswoman Lori Boone said 71 out of 473 officers in the department are women.
Former Howard County police officer Allen Hafner, a latent fingerprint examiner for the Howard County Police Department and the "unofficial police historian," said the county's first female officer, Elizabeth Maris, was hired in 1960.
Maris graduated from Baltimore City Police Academy and served two years with the Howard County police before moving to Florida, he said.
"She did not work patrol," Hafner said. "She was hired primarily for clerical work in the office but also helped out with female prisoners and [domestic abuse] investigations when they came in."
Leila "Lee" Makowski followed Maris as another Howard County female police officer in 1969, graduating from Anne Arundel County Police Academy. Hafner said Makowski – who later married another officer and took the last name, Hajek – worked on investigations as a detective and retired as a sergeant nearly 20 years later.
"There was a lot of skepticism about females being able to handle themselves in patrol," Hafner said. "It was a lot more violent than it is now [and] it was more physical. The femaleofficers had a rough time trying to be accepted because it was so different and the male officers tended to be more protective when they were out there."
Hafner said the Howard County Sheriff's Office's first female deputy sheriff dates back to 1921 when Sheriff Arthur Brosenne appointed his wife, Katherine, to the position. Katherine Brosenne served people with court-issued documents and, sometimes, assisted with investigations around the southern end of Route 1 between Jessup and Laurel.
The Brosennes both served a two-year term, which was the term limit, Hafner said.
Woodstock resident Dennis Wesley, 47, said he learned more about his grandmother's Laurel police career while reading a history column featured in the Laurel Leader.
According to a story published in 1955 in the News Leader, as the Laurel Leader was known then, the crossing guards went through six weeks of training after which they were given additional duties, such as parking meter patrol along Main Street. Their increased roles came after police officers resigned and the department chose not to fill the positions.
The News Leader reported the department clarified this decision as "emergency measures," due to the resignations; however, the decision was also a cheaper alternative to hiring new male officers.
Part of the Police Department's increased budget – growing from $20,000 per year to $29,000 between 1950 and 1955 – was because then-Laurel Police Chief George Barkman hired the women as crossing guards, the News Leader reported. The women were not compensated for crossing guard duty but paid 85¢ per hour for other police work.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's 1959 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the average salary of police officers was $3,600 annually in small cities — populations between 10,000 and 25,000 — and $4,200 annually in large cities — populations over 500,000.
Helen Tester and Gladys Allen were sisters. Connie Bollinger, Allen's daughter, said the two women and Walker used their own money to pay for a year-long police certification course at the University of Maryland.
They never patrolled in cars, Bollinger said, and always referred to each other by their last names.
"It was always, 'Hi, Walker, how are you doing?' and her response would be, 'Allen, I'm doing great,'" said the 71-year-old Denton, Texas resident.
The five women later assisted in juvenile and arson investigations and liquor law violations in Laurel, the News Leader reported.
Among the disputes were discussions to increase their pay as police officers. After ongoing debates between the mayor, City Council and members of the public, the women were returned to their crossing guard positions, with no police powers but maintaining their pay.
The women resigned two days later, the News Leader reported.
"She wanted to do something good and decided to be a crossing guard" at the intersection outside St. Mary of the Mills School and St. Vincent Pallotti High School, Wesley said. "She never really had an interest in being a police officer."
Mary Wesley, who died at age 88 in 1995, lived on Prince George Street in Laurel, where her seven children attended St. Mary's and later Pallotti High.
"She'd be writing a ticket on Main Street and then they'd have to go into a bar to break up a fight. That was not her," Wesley said. "It's amazing to me because if you knew her, I couldn't imagine her writing a ticket much less breaking up a fight at a bar."
Charles Walker, the son of Rose Mary Walker, said he still recalls his mother hosting a "mock homicide" one evening inside their home on Gorman Avenue. The practice drill was performed using a card game, he said, once his mother alerted the neighbors of what was going to happen.
"I'm willing to bet [the five women] were all there," said the 71-year-old Millsboro, Del., resident. "My mother told me, 'Sit in the corner and don't say anything.' They called the Police Department and rescue squad, said there had been a shooting or a murder and they all came running in the house" and were told it was a drill.
Walker also directed traffic using a microphone at the intersection of northbound Route 1 and eastbound Route 198. Her son said she stood outside a little house that was built on stilts near the ramp to Route 198.
Most days, Walker said, his mother walked him to school wearing her crossing guard uniform. She worked at two more intersections in the area – one at Fifth and Montgomery streets and another at Montgomery Street and St. Mary's Place.
She died at age 86 in 2005.
Floyd Tester Jr., Helen Tester's son, said he didn't know much about his mother's job, but "when they first started out, I think they were enjoying it." The Tester family lived in two different homes in Laurel on Contee and Van Dusen roads.
Floyd Tester Jr., 80, and his wife, Mary Jane Tester, 78, currently live in Lexington, Ky., and plan to attend the Aug. 28 dedication ceremony in Laurel.
"What it boiled down to is that [the department] was putting more and more stuff on them to do," Tester said. "There was no point in doing the work if they weren't getting paid enough."
Helen Tester died in 2005; she was 85, and Gladys Allen died at age 90 in 2015.
"It makes you proud of what they did," Mary Jane Tester added. "I feel they'll look down from Heaven at [the plaque], but it would've been nice if they were recognized prior to their deaths."