First policewoman in Beaumont says feeding her kids is what drove her to break boundaries

First policewoman in Beaumont says feeding her kids is what drove her to break boundaries

She was a pioneer at the Beaumont Police Department, the first woman police officer to make the force. She spearheaded the genesis of what would become the Special Crimes Unit at BPD, headed the ID Department, oversaw personnel, and spent decades in a role traditionally off-limits to the fairer sex – serving as a “she-ro” and role model for little girls who wanted to pursue the same.

Still, according to Ella “Faye” Ford Woodsmall, she never intended to make history – she just wanted to be able to support herself and her two young daughters.

“I never got into it to be the first,” Woodsmall said of her decision to enter the police academy as the first Beaumont Police Department female officer hire in 1976. “I did it because I wanted to eat.”

A single mother, Woodsmall says she was too broke to afford food stamps, which were actual stamps you had to pay cash for back then, she recalls.

“I would have to get the money from my father to pay for food stamps. That’s how broke I was.” And it wasn’t because she didn’t work. Woodsmall was a secretary, a learned stenographer, rehab worker…

“I always kept a job, but it just didn’t pay enough,” she said. Prior to entering the police academy, Woodsmall was already on the clock at BPD as part of the civilian workforce. As a secretary, Woodsmall brought home $537 a month. Her starting salary as a police officer was $865 a month.

“That was a lot of money to me,” she said. It went a long way to pay for daycare, food and housing. “I wasn’t making enough money to pay the bills before then.”

When pondering the challenge of joining the police force, Woodsmall weighed the pros and cons, but ultimately, the desire to put bread on the table superseded any negatives that could have dissuaded her from the chosen path to self-sufficiency.

“Sooner or later, they’re going to get a woman,” she thought. “It might as well be me.”

Woodsmall easily aced the written exam and trained non-stop for the physical endurance test – which wasn’t modified because she was a woman.

“I did the exact same test as the men,” she said. Actually, she was glad it was the same test. “All the way through, I had to do everything that a man did. I knew if I didn’t do it, I’d never have any acceptance.

“Back then, they thought women couldn’t do the job.”

But Woodsmall would show them different. She would pack her two toddlers, ages 2 and 4 at the time, and run the track every day, practice pull-ups on the monkey bars, push herself to the limits so when the time came to scale the wall, swim the rescue, run the course – she was ready.If she failed – it would be harder for her, she was told.

“Some people didn’t want me there,” she said, but those naysayers didn’t keep her from her mission to be the woman her daughters needed her to be – the woman she needed to be, wanted to be, for them.

The first day on the job, Woodsmall felt like all eyes were on her.

“Everybody’s looking,” she said. “Some of the public even had a problem trying to figure out if a woman really could do the job. Even if I was doing the report, you’d have a lot of people still only talking to the male officer on the scene.”

She took it all in stride.

“I didn’t want to make any big waves,” she said. She still doesn’t like to talk about the hardships of being the lone female in a fraternity of 250 or so male colleagues. For the most part, she said, her new coworkers were accepting and treated her fairly – but not all. “I knew when I took the job there would be problems and obstacles.”

Robberies in progress, machine-gun-toting suspects, burglaries, domestic disturbances … you name it, she could handle it just like the men. Going to the bathroom, however, “that’s where it got interesting,” Woodsmall said. Since there was no women’s locker room, they took a locker from the men’s locker room and put it in the women’s bathroom in the lobby. She also had to wear a man’s uniform – seeing as there were no “women’s police officer uniforms” at the time.

“I did what I needed to do,” she said, and that mantra carried her through the growing pains of the first year or so on the job. Two years later, Woodsmall earned top score on the sergeant’s exam and became the first woman sergeant in BPD history. Not content with resting on her laurels, Woodsmall kept up the ambitious pace at which she was setting department “firsts” and worked with a group of police and community officials to plan and implement a safe house for abused children that would later be dubbed the Mickey Mehaffey Advocacy Program (Garth House), as well as create, along with two fellow officers, a unit to address special crimes. At the time of its formation, the Special Crimes Unit was not only a novel innovation but also a needed one, as Beaumont was experiencing a troubling wave of rapes.

“We didn’t really have a central location for dealing with rape cases,” Woodsmall recalls. “It was amazing, the MO on these rape cases, just really peculiar or extraordinary details.” Two serial rapists were captured and brought to justice within a short time of the unit’s addition to the department.

“It was like a puzzle being put together when we got all those cases.”

Nearly 25 years into her service at BPD, Woodsmall was diagnosed with breast cancer. The deadly disease had already taken Woodsmall’s mother, Mary Hargraves, with the family matriarch passing away in August 1977 right after she was able to witness her baby girl become the first woman to successfully pass the probationary phase of becoming a Beaumont police officer.

“When I graduated the academy, it was a real proud moment for her,” Woodsmall recalled. Her mother had always been outspoken and a real force to be reckoned with, although women were confined to certain roles back then. “In her time, it wasn’t really acceptable for women to have a ‘voice,’” she said, although her mother taught her and her siblings to challenge that societal expectation. “That’s what she taught us – and I guess it stuck.”

Losing her mother to cancer was the worst thing she ever had to endure, Woodsmall said, and when cancer came calling for her while she was still in the prime of her life, she set about tackling what could be the second worst thing she ever had to go through.

“You need to concentrate on getting well,” Woodsmall’s husband told her.

Still in her 40s, with 25 years of service to BPD, Woodsmall retired Dec. 31, 1998, alongside fellow veteran officer and husband, Ed. “After that, I was busy with grandkids. I tried to live a little bit of life.”

Aggressive treatment at MD Anderson and a lot of radiation later, Woodsmall is still grabbing life by the horns some 20 years later.

“I’m just glad that I got to live to tell about it,” she said. “Mom was 53 when she died; I’m 68 now.”

Woodsmall was honored for her achievement in breaking through the glass ceiling at BPD with recognition as a 2017 Pioneering Woman during a luncheon held Aug. 3 at the Holiday Inn ballroom. Grandson and No. 1 fan Joseph Trahan said he is glad Woodsmall is getting a touch of the recognition she so rightly deserves.

Woodsmall, ever humble and ever the public servant, has always shied away from the limelight and would gladly continue to do so.

“She is definitely an outstanding woman and a true pioneer for women in law enforcement,” Trahan said. “We need to know our history, learn about those who paved the way for us. … “I would definitely not be who I am today without my grandmother – but I also know that I’m not the only one.”