(To listen to the audio of this blog post, use the purple play button.)
· James Andrew Woodson: A Family View ·
When I asked Leland Woodson, 84 years of age, for an interview about his father, James A. Woodson (1893-1971), my interest was mainly his dad’s career as a Hutchinson Police Officer from 1927-1949. I understood that I’d only get a glimpse of the officer’s lengthy service. After all, I was writing a blog, not a book.
When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that three of Leland’s siblings, all sisters, Galena Mae (Crable), 90; Geraldine (Triplett), 87; and Theda (Sorenson), 85; would be joining us at the dining room table for an extended conversation. There would certainly be an abundance of information.
True enough, I heard a lot about “daddy” as they remembered him around the house, not on police duty.
I learned that in the day, when James was young, the Plummer sisters had a reputation far and wide as the most gorgeous girls in Hutchinson. This in part led James to marrying Thelma Plummer sooner rather than later.
James was a World War I veteran who wrote letters home for many other soldiers who hadn’t learned the skill. He helped teach them reading and writing prior to, during, and after the journey by ship to France.
After James was hired by the Hutchinson Police Department (HPD), he walked a beat, especially on South Main. The police department was practicing community policing before they had a name for it. It made sense. Woodson knew the people and the people knew him.
This was in the day when there were more officers than departmental cars and motorcycles. On a few occasions I’ve read about a local police officer, including Officer Woodson, stopping a citizen’s car and ordering the surprised civilian driver: “follow that car!”
James A. Woodson, “daddy” to the children, was known in the community as “the mayor of the south end.” I liked the ring to that. He was a busy man both on and off duty. People would stop by the house and seek help and advice. I’d also read that people borrowed money from him, and there were times when he wasn’t paid back.
The adult Woodson children told me that even today people recall how appreciative they are that Officer Woodson took them to their home when they were drunk rather than to the city jail.
Foolishly, I thought I’d surprise the four Woodson’s with an interesting fact. “Did you know that your father was a city dog catcher prior to being hired by the police department in 1927?”
“Where do you think we got Buttons, the little rat terrier?” I was asked. Yes, of course, they knew he was a dog catcher.
James had a good sense of humor. People knew he had a lot of kids but when he was asked, “How many?” he’d pretend he wasn’t sure, so he’d call home and ask Thelma: “Honey, how many kids have we got?” After September 15, 1943, the correct and final answer was eleven.
Before Hispanics were hired on the police force, James learned to speak and understand Spanish so he could become the department’s interpreter. He studied the language using Galena Mae’s high school Spanish textbook, working with a tutor, and interacting at a Mexican store.
Raymond Alfaro visited the Woodson home and gave Spanish lessons to James. Then Woodson would practice his conversational Spanish at a little Mexican store that had Mexican families living nearby. This was an example of Officer Woodson seeking out opportunities to become more helpful and increase his value.
Today, the children are still surprised that during their dad’s police career he consistently made the family’s six o’clock sit-down dinner around the round kitchen table. Daddy would decide what they talked about. The girls remembered how “he taught us manners, math, grammar, and a lot on politics.” They had math contests at home. “Daddy was an excellent mathematician. He loved numbers.”
James was a politician. “He was a Republican until they let him know they didn’t need him anymore.” He attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate for Eisenhower in San Francisco and helped Ike get elected in 1957.” Locally, he also helped Bob Dole in his election.
What a well-respected, influential, talented guy, I thought. But I was surprised again when I heard: “Daddy could play the piano, and play the banjo too. He used to be in a band.” My goodness, was there anything he couldn’t do?
No, in fact, “he was an inventor,” Leland told me. James had patented a firearms target that electronically recorded the scores of shooters.
I’d read in old newspaper articles that James was a member of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, but the children offered a more personal view. “Dad did not go to church. He didn’t have much respect for ministers. He knew too much about them.”
When I mentioned how I noticed that the Hutchinson News would promote local Emancipation Proclamation festivities every summer, and it seemed like James was always the president of the Lincoln Club, the children remembered how they had participated annually in preparing invitations to be sent out through the mail across the state.
I never asked a question about race or racism but Galena Mae volunteered that, like their neighbors, they had no money. They didn’t have any reason to go downtown and they sure weren’t going to go out to eat. “We didn’t need to go to a restaurant. There were eleven of us! Mama could cook.”
The adult children remembered as kids going over to the Arkansas River to play and swim since the municipal pool at Carey Park was segregated, enforcing the socially unjust “white only” law.
The adult children always thought that maybe their dad was cheating while playing checkers and dominoes. “Why did you think he was cheating?” I asked. “Because he always won!” was the unanimous response. He was an excellent card and domino player. And, of course, they remembered being put in a cell at the police station by their daddy, just so they’d know what it was like.
When I mentioned that James had run for sheriff in 1956, no one was surprised. “Mama didn’t want him to run.”
The adult kids recalled all their time spent taking care of the family lawn. “We never had a sticker in that grass! Daddy would fertilize the yard” but we’d make sure it was weed-free.
Galena Mae recalled there was never any fighting and no reason for it. Geraldine added, “Why would we fight? We’d probably get a whippin’.”
As the adult children around me recalled their bedrooms having bunk beds and how the girls shared clothing, I could feel their excitement. I couldn’t imagine such a full house but clearly, their memories were good ones.
Eventually, the city changed the name of the 300 block of West E for a block to Woodson Plaza.
James was tremendously valuable to the department and to the community. When he retired, the city recognized the length and extraordinary service he had given. After twenty-two years on the police force, he was promoted to lieutenant. While the thought was appreciated, the promotion did not include any financial benefit.
The children thought that their father had never fired his revolver on duty while enforcing the law. Actually, to the surprise of many, that’s not uncommon. But clearly, Officer Woodson was in dangerous situations where he needed his gun out during high-risk or felony car stops and arrests. One time, he stopped a car with heavily armed bank robbers and took them to jail—with assistance I expect, unless he really was Superman—since I’ve never heard of a police officer carrying three pairs of handcuffs.
One impression, or collective memory of the Woodson’s, was that James served on the department longer than he did, into the 1950s. This may be due to the man remaining active and visible in policing arenas. After retiring he was a watchman, an active bondsman, and operated a merchant police service.
Leland had the unfortunate memory of May 20, 1971. He was working with his daddy when James fell off a ladder and hit his head on a concrete sidewalk. It was outside 11 East Ave E while the two of them were improving Leland’s club, La Wood. The injury to Woodson, affectionately known to the children as “daddy”, was fatal. He died at age 77.
James’ wife, Thelma Plummer (1898-1990), survived her husband until 1990, dying at age 91.
As the Woodson children prepared to end the interview about memories, they agreed about how fortunate they were to have the parents they had. “We grew up in a way to get along with and respect all people. We didn’t fight. We learned respect.”
Geraldine concluded, “I thank God we had the parents we had.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
A big thank you to Galena Mae Crable, Geraldine Triplett, Theda Sorenson, and Leland Woodson for allowing me to join them while they shared their memories.
Thanks to Sandy Woodson for the family photos and for taking a lead role with the editing.