Wife of past sheriff remembered for integral police role

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By Donna Williamson
Opelika Observer

Kathleen Chapman grew up with law enforcement. Her father was in law enforcement in Lineville. Her husband Herman, who served as a military policeman during World War II, began his law enforcement career with the Alabama Highway Patrol then was promoted to investigator with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI), and they moved to Opelika.

Little did Kathleen know that law enforcement was also in her future.

After their three children were in school, Kathleen decided to look for a job. “Herman told me they needed someone to work at the sheriff’s office and asked me if I was interested,” she said. “Sheriff Paul Ragsdale hired me, and I worked there for 33 years.

“I was one of very few women working there when I started. I did a little of everything: book work, communications and helping to escort female prisoners,” she said. “I was not hired as a deputy, but I always wore the uniform.”

However, when Kathleen did become a deputy, the job didn’t change. “I still did anything and everything,” she said.

During her years of service, a law was passed that required officers to attend police academy. However, since Kathleen had been with the department for so long, Pearson grandfathered her or, as she said, “grandmothered” her, so that she did not have to attend the academy. Pearson not only “grandmothered” Kathleen, he also promoted her to lieutenant.

In 1980 her husband was appointed by then Gov. Fob James to fill the unexpired term of  Pearson, who died in office. Herman remained sheriff until he retired in 1999.

Kathleen remembers some of the deputies telling her, “We can’t come to you and cuss the sheriff now because you go home with him.”

Kathleen admitted that it was strange working with Herman in the beginning. “He told me ‘I’ll do my job and you do yours.’ He was the boss, but I had seniority,” she said with a smile.

Kathleen retired as Lieutenant over Administration, which meant she managed the office and the deputies. The deputies were family. She talked to them about different situations and told them to “Be the nicest, sweetest people they could be, and when they had to be mean, be the meanest they could be.”

“We’ve had some good guys through the sheriff’s office,” Kathleen said. One of those “good guys” whom she remembers fondly is Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones. “I think the world of Jay,” she said. “He is doing a great job.”

Jones, who became Herman’s successor as sheriff, definitely remembers Kathleen. “I met Mrs. Kat (that’s the name all of us at the sheriff’s office addressed her by) when I began working as a student intern during my senior year at Auburn. I remember thinking that she was so nice, but I quickly learned that she would let you know if your conduct or attitude needed adjustment, and it was usually appropriate on her part to do so.”

He also credits her influence to his success in law enforcement. “I truly believe I would not have been successful in my career without Mrs. Kat’s influence,” Jones said. “She can honestly claim that she ‘raised’ a bunch of deputy sheriffs through the years. We looked at her that way and tried not to disappoint her because we knew she would let us know if we did.

“I had been with the sheriff’s office just a few months when my mom passed away. I was a patrol deputy and a young man, but she kept an eye on me. I looked to her as I did my mom. Mrs. Kat has always been very kind to me, and I will never forget that.”

According to Jones, women like Kathleen were pioneers for women in law enforcement. “When she started, it was uncommon to see female sworn officers,” he said.

Retired Lee County District Attorney Nick Abbett has always respected Kathleen and her career as a professional law enforcement officer. “Kathleen became employed with LCSO about the time I began my law enforcement career with the Opelika Police Department in 1966. I became a detective in 1968,” Abbett explained. “At that time all defendants charged with felony crimes were delivered to the sheriff at the county jail. Paul Ragsdale was sheriff, and Mrs. Chapman helped with booking prisoners.”

Over the years they became good friends.

“Kathleen was rock solid at LCSO,” Abbett said. “If you wanted to make sure that something got done and did not ‘fall through the cracks,’ she was the one to contact. She became a sworn Deputy Sheriff and I believe one of the first, if not the first, female to serve in that capacity.”

When Abbett ran for District Attorney in 1998, he sought campaign advice from Herman and Kathleen. “My wife and I spent several hours with Herman and Kathleen learning how to campaign for public office,” he said. “In fact, Kathleen suggested my campaign slogan ‘experience counts’ (because it does).”

Kathleen and Herman were married for 62 years. Kathleen said after he died in May 2013, she “began a new phase of my life, and, as in all phases, the most important things are faith in God, family and friends.”

She does not consider herself special in any way and says, “There are so many people who did so many things.”

However, there are those who disagree, including Abbett.

“I believe that God puts special people in your life to guide and help you along the way. Kathleen Chapman has and always will be one of those people for me,” he said.

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