Memory Lane & the Highway Patrol
What started out as an ordinary workday for one Edmond woman, ended up as a "walk down memory lane."
Once a month, Kati Schmidt, of Trinity Home Care Services, Inc., in Edmond, looks over the monthly newsletter from the Edmond Senior Center. As marketing director for Trinity, Schmidt placed an ad in their monthly newsletter and checks each month to make sure it’s there. This month as she was looking for the ad, something else caught her eye. A small announcement mentioned an author who was coming to speak at the Edmond Senior Center. Donna Stephens, another Edmondite and author of Local Oklahoma Histories, was coming to talk about her book, Soldiers of the Law, which explains the establishment of Oklahoma’s Department of Public Safety and the Highway Patrol.
Huge red flags went up when Schmidt read the ad because Schmidt’s father, Leon Fox, was one of the original six Oklahoma Highway Patrolmen. Schmidt went to the author’s web site where she found part of the foreword to the book. While reading it, flashes of her childhood ran through Schmidt’s mind as a "kid of a cop." The author was also the daughter of an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman. Their childhood stories had similar twists.
Law enforcement was certainly different then from what it is today. Imagine being a law enforcement officer and not even having a cell phone. Or having a dispatch radio in the car that only worked one way. You could hear the dispatcher, but you couldn’t respond. This definitely put the officers’ safety at risk. Officers didn’t always have a partner either, so it was doubly dangerous then. There was no technology, no computers in the cars, no GPS (global positioning satellite). It’s hard to fathom with today’s technology and electronic gadgetry.
It was primarily because of Pretty Boy Floyd and other gangsters that the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety and the Highway Patrol were formed. In those years, despite the depression, more and more cars were showing up in Oklahoma. But there were no specific laws regarding their use. As a result, state roads quickly became networks of death and violence. State law prohibited local officers from chasing criminals past their own county lines. So gangsters only had to outrun the law past the county line and they were home free.
Politics also played a big role in the system. Pressure was put on politicians to do something about the highways gone wild. In l937, E. W. Marland, governor at that time, signed a bill that created the Department of Public Safety and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Before 1937, no agency investigated car wrecks. Sheriff’s deputies would go out and pull bodies and cars off the road, but there wasn’t anyone to make reports. In those days there was no speed limit. The speed law only prohibited above "what is reasonable and proper." Nor was there a driver’s license system. Only Oklahoma City required drivers to be registered and you could purchase a license in a grocery store or drug store at that time.
Leon Fox’s desire to serve in law enforcement was so strong that he fabricated his age to meet the age requirements. He conveniently took the birthday off of his sister’s birth certificate and called it his own. On December 31, 1930, Fox joined the Oklahoma City Police Department as a motorcycle officer and retired as a Lieutenant in the detective division on December 31, 1959. Fox served in every department on the force, and in fact, helped establish many of them. Four other motorcycle officers began their careers on that same day in 1930. All had breakfast together then walked to police headquarters and reported for their first day of work.
Fox’s career took a turn in 1937 when he was called from duty and granted a two-year leave of absence to help establish the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The first Highway Patrol training school was on the University of Oklahoma campus. These were the "depression years" and the schools drew a lot of folks who were glad to receive the $150 per month salary. Fox was asked to be a motorcycle instructor and at the same time went through all the courses to become a Highway Patrolman. He was one of only two full-time instructors. The training was three to four weeks of intense, military type classes. They were rigid and fast in order to prepare these men to become troopers. They were needed in the field as quickly as they could be trained.
Schmidt’s mother, Lois, also had a career in law enforcement. She went to work for the OKCPD in l943 and met Fox while she was working there as a secretary.
"My mother always told me that policemen are born and not made. She explained to me that there are certain attributes that just can’t be taught and there’s a stinging passion that won’t go away. You’re either a cop with your whole heart or you don’t make it long. It’s a brotherhood that can’t be described and it lasts a lifetime," said Schmidt. "The officers that my father worked with were life-long friends, not only to each other, but also to their families. And when an officer was down, pity the poor soul who did it, if they ever found him."
At that time, salaries were so low officers usually had to work at least two or three extra jobs just to make ends meet.
"My father always had side jobs," said Schmidt. "He would often take us to get ice cream cones. This was back in the day when you parked you car, ate your ice cream and just watched the people go by for entertainment. I didn't know till much later in life that this was actually one of his side jobs. He was a private investigator and we had parked where he could stake out a residence and observe the people coming and going. But ice cream cones were only 5 cents and it allowed us all to be together as a family and we never knew he was working at the same time."
When Schmidt was about six or seven years old, she and her brother and sister would take turns sitting in the scout car while their daddy was home for dinner.
"We would be on alert to listen for my father’s dispatch number. If he received a call, we would run inside and tell him then he would have to use our phone inside the house, providing the party line wasn’t busy, to call headquarters to get his assignment," said Schmidt. Often, dinner would be left sitting on the table to get cold as Fox picked up his gun from the dining room table and ran out the door to answer the call of duty.
True law enforcement officers back then didn’t talk much about their work in front of their families. "I probably was privy to more information than most because, at night, my mother would type while my father dictated his daily police reports. I heard a lot of gruesome details that way, but I certainly never heard those stories directly from my father. The subject matter at our house was probably a little different than in other households, but it was just our way of life," recalled Schmidt.
"When Daddy came home, without fail, he took his gun from the holster and laid it on the dining room table. It stayed there until he left. But that gun fascinated every kid that came to my house to play. I never understood what the fascination was back then because we just knew you didn’t touch that gun. We were raised with it," said Schmidt.
Fox won several state and national shooting competitions. His wife, Lois, also became a markswoman.
"As kids, we used to spend hours at the shooting range, which at that time, was the big hill on I-35 near Norman that has recently been removed for highway expansion. They contributed a lot of lead to that hill," Schmidt said.
Fox never gave up his shooting practice. Later in his career, complications set in after kicking in the door while going after an escaped convict. He was confined to bed for several weeks after having his kneecap removed. There were no quick knee replacements like there are today.
"He would lie in his bed, hour after hour, and point his pistol at the corner of the room where the ceiling and two walls meet and practice his aim. Of course, there were no bullets in the gun, but you could hear the constant clicking of the trigger and the barrel spinning over and over again," said Schmidt.
While working full time as a detective after the war, Fox went back to college and received his LLB in 1953 from OCU Law School. He enrolled in school without the sixty pre-law hours required for admittance. They didn’t discover it until it was time for him to graduate. Since Fox didn’t have a transcript, he got some well-known city officials to write letters asking OCU to accept his prior police work, experience, and his outstanding reputation in place of the sixty credit hours. They did! Among those writing letters were Lawrence James Hilbert, Chief of Police at that time, Allen Street, Mayor of OKC, Mac Q. Williamson, Attorney General of Oklahoma, and Judge P. J. Demopolis.
Unfortunately, in 1965, Detective Fox died of a massive heart attack at the age of 55. Schmidt was just sixteen years old.
"I feel it’s a great tribute for Ms. Stephens to write a book that plays such a vital role in Oklahoma’s history. I lived that life and sadly, I regret that the timing of information was such that we weren’t able to share our part of that history with her," said Schmidt. "My mother spent the last twenty years of her life researching our genealogy. She assembled their lives in notebooks in chronological order for me, my brother and sister and all our kids. I have all the photos, paperwork and newspaper clippings. All the history that I feel could have helped Stephens in her research."
And remember those five young police officers that all ate breakfast together before their first day of work on December 1, 1930. They met for breakfast every year after that on December 1 for the next twenty years. Then in May, l962, Fox and a few other retired officers invited 45 men to a meeting. That was the beginning of the Retired Police Officers Association. As would be expected, Fox was elected their first president. "
"I think my mother was right," said Schmidt. "It’s a strong brotherhood, indeed.”