· James A. Woodson: A Newspaper View ·
James A. Woodson (1893-1971) achieved a lot of during his twenty-two year career as an officer on the Hutchinson Police Department (Kansas) from 1927 through 1949. Who else, anywhere, was hired as a city dog catcher and retired as a lieutenant?
Can you imagine being a police officer walking the beat on Main Street without a vehicle, without a two-way radio, and certainly without a smart phone? That’s the way it was for Officer Woodson and other men on the Hutchinson Police Department during the early days.
Officers on foot patrol, walking their beat, received assignments from headquarters via the “Red Light System” during the late 1920s. When the supervisor at the station wanted to contact an officer, he pushed a button that activated three large red, revolving lights that were atop tall buildings, including the Landmark Hotel at 5th and Main. Beat officers would respond by walking to the nearest call box to contact the station. When the appropriate beat officer was reached, the lights were turned off. This system was abandoned in 1934 with the installation of one-way handset radios. (Conlon).
Reading through Hutchinson News articles about James A. Woodson, I eventually began thinking of the reporting as falling into one of six categories: 1) Woodson’s response to criminal activity on the streets of the city while he was an officer of the Hutchinson Police Department (including in the middle of the night when he was “roused from bed” while he was off-duty at home); 2) his regular participation on the department’s competitive pistol team; 3) his longevity on the department while others were quitting or being fired (each new mayor or new police chief had his own political agenda); 4) his long-time leadership as president of the statewide Lincoln Day Club; 5) being involved in politics, and 6) his response to racial issues as a respected civic leader who championed civil rights.
Cases or Investigations
One time on duty, Woodson stopped a suspicious car with heavily armed bank robbers. The fellows in the front seat pleaded with the guy in the back seat to shoot the officer, but the accomplice refused. Later, locked up, he reasoned: “I may be caught for bank robbery but murder won’t be added to it.”
Officer Woodson remembered an armed robbery investigation of a shoe store owner on South Main. After the detectives had been unable to develop any useful information, they turned it over to Woodson. In order to solve it, the patrolman followed leads to Wichita, Kansas City, and Chicago. He returned from the Windy City with one suspect who confessed and implicated two others.
Working as a police officer was dangerous in the Salt City. Officers were shot and killed. Bank robberies were not uncommon. Police chases involved exchanges of gunfire. During one liquor raid, Woodson had a .45 caliber gun pointed at his chest, the trigger was pulled, but the gun did not fire.
According to a newspaper article announcing Woodson’s retirement, he had even been hit and run over by a car. Somehow, Woodson was able to stop the vehicle, and learned the driver had been drinking but was not drunk. Instead of taking the driver to jail, he took him home. Only then did Woodson seek medical aid! When the chief learned of the encounter, he was upset at Woodson for not seeking help sooner.
He Thrived as a Police Officer
It says a lot about James A. Woodson to have served the city and the police department for 22 years. Often, the average person doesn’t understand that a new mayor or police chief sometimes results in officers losing their jobs, even within a civil service system. It’s called politics. If there was a competitive race for mayor and a police officer took sides and bet on the losing man, then the newly elected mayor might consider that officer’s loyalty as suspect. Woodson didn’t just survive, he thrived at his work—whether as the department’s Spanish interpreter or as a crack shot on the competition pistol team. He was an integral part of the police force, rewarded with trust and promotions.
Officer Woodson outlasted at least ten different appointed police chiefs, some interim. Chief George M. Duckworth hired the former dog catcher and Chief Ray Hensley complimented the retiring lieutenant.
One piece of advice that Lt. Woodson gave to new officers, who were considering making a career out of the job, was the importance of looking at the big picture. He said: “Learn to be a policeman and not just a cop. There is a difference. Make arrests, but make and keep your friends. They are your eyes and ears, your source of information.”
Woodson for Sheriff in 1956
In 1956, after police retirement, Woodson chose to throw his hat in the ring for the position of Reno County Sheriff. One of his political ads stated: “Qualified to handle the civil and criminal responsibilities of your office. Courteously, Honestly, and Efficiently.” He was one of seven candidates in the Republican primary. Despite the opposition—an incumbent, two former sheriffs, two former undersheriffs, and a deputy—James A. “Jim” Woodson finished in the middle of the pack.
To me, this is an example of how sometimes a person can make a difference and be a winner by participating even when others may perceive the contest as having been lost. Jim Woodson continued to open doors to all possibilities, including for people of color.
Lincoln Day Club and Emancipation Day
For decades, every summer, when Emancipation Day was celebrated in Hutchinson, James Woodson was quoted in the Hutchinson News or Herald. Often it was noted that Woodson, from Hutchinson, was re-elected state president of the Lincoln Day Club.
In 1954, after a committee meeting, President Woodson said: “the purpose of the meeting was to promote understanding among the Negro people of events to come, proper behavior in the light of recent Supreme Court rulings, better race relations, and to discuss conditions in general as they affect minority races.”
Woodson was a longtime leader in the Reno County Republican Party. He was a committeeman in the first precinct, served as treasurer of the Republican Central Committee, attended the National Convention in San Francisco as a delegate for Eisenhower, and helped Ike get elected in 1957. He also aided Bob Dole in his election.
Prejudice and Social Strife in the ‘60s
I found one newspaper article that revealed how upset Woodson could get at the system, in this case “police state tactics.” In 1966, as a landlord, he had loaned out building space to a church youth group. The teenagers were preparing it for a party one night when they were interrupted. After the police busted open the back door when the front door was unlocked, the officers allegedly humiliated and nearly scared the young people to death. When Woodson complained to the city commission, he objected to “Bull Connor” tactics being used on a group of Negro youths during the unsuccessful liquor raid.
“It’s the old story of if you’re white you’re right, if you’re brown stick around, but if you’re black get back,” Woodson said.
“It’s your responsibility to eliminate the inequities in our community,” Woodson told the commission. “People in your race and mine are disgusted with the present state of affairs. Are we living in a police state? We aren’t being treated fairly,” he concluded.
In 1967, during the racially tense period in the United States when Detroit and other urban cities were burning and people were dying, retired Lt. Woodson was asked to evaluate the local climate in Hutchinson.
“These riots aren’t something that just ‘happen’,” said Woodson. “Take a background of substandard housing, substandard wages, and substandard education, plus a background history of 100 years of suffering from the worst type of prejudice . . . and you have the ingredients to create a monster!”
Woodson told the reporter that Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts had shed some light on the problem created by the “social monster,” while Stokely Carmichael, who the reporter labeled a “Negro agitator,” was viewed by Woodson as unhelpful in solving the problem. “His [Carmichael’s] extremist philosophy of what the American Negro should be is definitely not conducive to a better understanding between Negro and white,” Woodson said.
Even though Woodson retired as a lieutenant, he offered himself as an example of being held back due to the color of his skin. “. . . I had three different mayors tell me, ‘Woodson, if you weren’t a Negro, you would be our next captain’.”
Being qualified but not selected, was something Woodson couldn’t forget.
Western Front, 1971
Without a doubt, the most moving newspaper article I read about James Woodson was written by his son-in-law, Dallas Crable, describing the deep respect and love he felt for his recently departed friend, who was like a father to him.
Crable described Woodson as “a man of honesty, integrity, and plain guts. Here was a man that constantly, in the face of insurmountable odds, placed himself on the firing line. He called the shots as he saw them, gave no quarter and asked no quarter; he was a man. Yet, he was also a man of compassion.”
He was a Man
When James A. Woodson died May 20, 1971, from a fall, Hutchinson lost a pillar of its community. As noted above, Crable, reportedly Hutchinson’s first black city commissioner, concluded: “Mr. Woodson thought like a man; he acted like a man; and above all, he was his own man.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
Credit goes to Roger L. Conlon, Jr. (1948-2001), former police officer and deputy, for his extensive historical research on the Hutchinson Police Department. In 1977 he printed/published A CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE HUTCHINSON POLICE DEPARTMENT.