It was some 20 years ago. Night had fallen, and the air was hot and soupy.
Walter Fahey, perhaps the greatest living Boston police officer at the time, was standing at the counter of Doughboy Donuts in Edward Everett Square, waiting for a consignment of day-old doughnuts that the owner, Paul Barry, would give to Walter, and which Walter would then bring to the shelter at the Shattuck Hospital, so the homeless guys could put something in their empty stomachs.
I don’t remember in what context, but the subject of Barbara Ridlon came up.
Walter Fahey turned slowly and deliberately, as a gunfighter in an old Wild West saloon might when challenged, and he said this: “Barbara Ridlon is all cop.”
It was the highest praise that Walter Fahey carried in his utility belt. Walter Fahey, a Dorchester native, was the quintessential Boston cop. But he was the first to admit that when he came on the job, he was prejudiced. He was skeptical of minority cops and female cops.
But a funny thing happened: Walter started watching how black and brown and yellow and female cops carried themselves and he started judging people as individuals, not as members of a particular group. He softened, like Scrooge on Christmas morning, after the last ghost had departed.
He loved Willie Gross, the city’s current and first African-American police commissioner, on more than one occasion telling me that Gross was “all cop.” He loved Jimmy Tran, the city’s first Vietnamese officer.
And he loved Barbara Ridlon, one of the first 11 women to join the Boston Police Department, and one of the first three to be promoted to sergeant. On the drive up Columbia Road, from Doughboys to the Shattuck, Walter Fahey told me a story about Barbara Ridlon.
It was a Sunday afternoon, Father’s Day, and Barbara Ridlon, by this time a veteran with 20-plus years on the job, had just finished a shift and was driving home through Dorchester to Quincy when she saw some guy beating his wife in the parking lot of the old Fayva shoe store on Gallivan Boulevard near Neponset Circle.
A crowd had gathered around, watching the beating, like a modern-day version of the bloodlust spectators at the Coliseum in Rome.
Barbara Ridlon swung her car into the parking lot, leaped out, and raced headlong toward the man who was pounding his wife for having the temerity to defy him and buy a pair of shoes. Ridlon wasn’t in uniform. She didn’t have her radio to call for backup. But she carried the most fearsome thing in the world: the righteous indignation of a woman seeing some guy who thought it was perfectly acceptable to beat his wife in broad daylight surrounded by people who thought it was perfectly acceptable to stand there and do nothing.
Barbara Ridlon did something. She tore into that guy, pushed her badge in his face, and pushed him away from his pummeled wife.
“All cop,” Walter Fahey said, nodding in admiration. “All cop.”
Barbara Ridlon never sought adulation and awards, but for her selfless act of heroism outside that shoe store in Dorchester, she received the department’s Medal of Honor.
She grew up in New Hampshire, an adopted child who liked horses and playing the piano. After she graduated from the University of New Hampshire, she moved to Boston and got a job working security with the Pinkertons, eventually rising to become the head of security at the Jordan Marsh department store in Downtown Crossing.
She was at Boston Municipal Court, swearing out a complaint against a shoplifter, when she met a Boston police detective named John Ridlon Sr.
John Ridlon was a legend. He had an encyclopedic mind, and knew by name and face every bank robber in Charlestown, and there were a lot of them.
When prospective couples met back then, the guy might ask the woman out to a movie, or maybe dinner.
John Ridlon asked the woman who would become his wife if she’d like to look at an array of mug shots.
It was love at first perp.
Their son, Richie Ridlon, said his father was supportive of his mother’s quixotic ambition to break the gender barrier at the Boston Police Department, though he worried that some of the Neanderthals on the job wouldn’t be as welcoming.
He was right.
When Barbara Ridlon and 10 other women entered the police academy in 1972, they weren’t cheered like the US women’s national soccer team.
“She and my father told me there was broken glass on the conveyor belts in the Operations unit when the women were training there, knives ‘accidentally’ left in the seats of the cruisers they were driving, dead rats in their lockers,” her son told me.
He pulled out some old newspaper clippings which chronicled the groundbreaking class of women, referred to as “Hogan’s Heroines,” after Captain William Hogan, the academy commander. He shook his head at the patronizing tone of the coverage, in which trailblazing women were dismissed as “the gals” or, his favorite headline, “Wives of officers going into the academy.”
The 11 women were an eclectic bunch. One of them, Beverly Veseleny, had been a Playboy bunny. Another, Sheila Kaplan, was a certified genius, a member of MENSA.
They all had to put up with a lot of bigoted, patronizing baloney. Upon graduation, they were assigned uniforms that featured skirts. After Barbara Ridlon and Sheila Kaplan chased some perp up a fire escape in Roxbury, they complained and the department relented, letting them wear pants.
Barbara Ridlon was assigned to District 2 in Roxbury for years, a calming presence in a sea of daily chaos. She suffered nerve damage to her left arm in 1976 while wrestling with a 300-pound emotionally disturbed woman. She suffered more nerve damage, to her face, when some jerk threw a rock through her cruiser window. But she kept showing up, because she loved being a cop.
When Richie Ridlon was a young boy, his mother was working undercover, plainclothes, doing surveillance in a restaurant, keeping tabs on known criminals. She brought Richie along, to enhance her cover, having him take note of who was coming and going.
“I guess I was born to be a detective,” Richie said.
He eventually became one, with the Massachusetts State Police, and his mother beamed as he was pinned with his badge by Kathy O’Toole, one of Barbara Ridlon’s proteges who followed her onto the job, rising to become the first woman to lead the Boston Police Department, after serving as leader of the Massachusetts State Police.
“As I rose through the ranks, Barbara was always very encouraging and supportive,” Kathy O’Toole told me. “For me, she also demonstrated that it was possible to balance career and family.”
Like Walter Fahey, the BPD legend whose opinion of female officers changed so dramatically because of her, Barbara Ridlon didn’t want to retire so much as she had to. She aged out in 2001.
Barbara Ridlon died on Saturday. She was 83.
They dispatched Barbara Ridlon from this world on Thursday, at St. Theresa’s in West Roxbury, with all the respect and dignity that she earned and deserved.
She was, after all, more than a trailblazer, role model, a standard bearer, and great mother. She was all cop.