(Feb. 25, 2019, William Myers celebrated his 80th birthday. Fifty-six of those years were with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. He carries a badge. This is his story. Doink-doink!)
1939 — quite a year for the history books: the first TV baseball game; Hitler invaded Poland; Dorothy came back from Oz; Butterfly McQueen confessed to knowing nothing about birthing babies; and in February, Bus and Erma had one – their first son.
They Christened him William, after his dad, but gave him neither of Bus’s middle names because, since Dad was a Junior, Erma thought adding III was sciditty. So the son remained just plain William. They called him Billy. Eventually he became Bill.
He was never Just Plain anything.
For those who count, Bill has been: the first colored ROTC officer at his high school…apprentice butcher … award-winning Toastmaster and Dale Carnegie speaker; the middle of three ‘President Bill Myers’ of the Indianapolis Downtown Optimists Club; a U.S. Vice-President’s superior officer in the Indiana National Guard; train collector; community activist; diabetic; quadruple bypass recipient; father; grandfather; great-grandfather; humorist; actor; mime (though difficult it is to envision), and legacy-builder.
When he was about 25, after his teen-aged anointment as a National Guard Military Policeman, being a finalist to be the first Negro state police officer (official rejection, dental issue; unofficially, too dark-skinned), and before his ultimate ascension to his Indianapolis Police Department Lieutenant’s shield, Billy became — nay, created — the personae for which was born: Officer Friendly. Sometimes he actually was.
To say that Bill “created” Officer Friendly is not an exaggeration and is as close to accurate as the story came to me. There seems to be no historical documentation saying, “Bill Myers was the first Officer Friendly.” Nor was there, from recollection, any sort of news conference or mayoral proclamation designating so. And he’s not the type to go around saying, “You know, I was the first Officer Friendly,” although in the midst of family reveries, I flash on him implying as much in passing — else why is it in my head?
(A loving word of caution: anyone who approaches Bill as to the veracity of the above statement — like, if you ask him to talk about it? — should do so only with no other appointments, a soft cushion, and an empty bladder.)
Yet, for all intents and purposes — okay, in my mind — he was The First.
The certainty is that sometime in the mid-60s (the decade, not his age), Bill was transferred from street cop to be part of a unit of about eight IPD officers to form the Safety Education Department. Their role was to visit schools, talk to students about traffic safety, instruct traffic guards on protecting children, and, in essence, elevate the image of police officers.
Whatever the crime trend was at the time, someone somewhere decided it wise to encourage people — youngsters — to turn to police for help rather view cops as an enemy. Two intentional approaches to diminishing crime were police image and police presence. The image took the place of lectures in schools and TV ads with the tag, “Call a friend. Call a cop.” Safety Ed was the kinder, gentler side of SVU, the Untouchables and 5-0.
Erma was particularly glad when this transfer occurred. She’d never been fond of her oldest being a cop, even though he seemed genetically predisposed. The military and law enforcement seemed his sole (soul?) sustenance, probably the residual effect of being an only child for six years whose diet was radio programs that fed him a steady diet of news from the war in Europe and the Pacific between episodes of “The Shadow,” “Mr. District Attorney,” and “Dragnet.” The latter not only developed his Joe Friday alter-ego, they developed his memory as which stuck in his mind and were recounted as bedtime stories when babysitting infant siblings. His section of the basement play space that he and Dad dug out and built, called “Billy’s Side,” was dominated by a massive miniature village of WWII model planes, tanks, billboards and hand-painted toy soldiers encircled by a well-oiled Lionel train. It was a museum quality display: Don’t touch, we’ll tell.
Mother felt that being in an office working with kids would be safer than working on the streets. After all, even into his 60s, he was her oldest little boy; yet she relished recounting how her youngest boy, 14 years younger, once reminded her the depths of her mothering baby-birthing skills for there was a generation within his generation: “Mommy, you don’t have two girls and three boys. You have two girls, two boys and a Man. Billy’s a man.”
Whether Bill concurred, he’s never said (nor have I had the seat-cushion time to ask), but Bill and the original gentlemen of Safety Ed were uniquely qualified to work in the department, if for no other reason than that they were big children, and got to play with real police toys. These police toys were a reason that only Billy’s bedroom had an overhead lock, lest inquisitive youngest siblings go a-hunting.
(To hear him tell it — and again, clear your calendar — this writer had a penchant for picking the lock, rummaging the room and commandeering things like Billy’s Army rifle to run off playmates who ticked him off; or Billy’s handcuffs to secure an annoying little sister to a chair. Yes, having a cop for a brother was fun. Until he became your Dad.)
Officer Friendly’s best, sibling-proof toy, was his squad car which he got to drive home. Now it’s commonplace for cops to have their cars at home, but Safety Ed was the experiment to see the impact of whether a cop car regularly parked in residential neighborhoods could serve the same role of a beat cop and deter crime. Bill’s car not only deterred crime, it popularized our block.
The squad car was high tech. Its 1965 bells and whistles included new-fangled sirens that sounded more like Mister Softee than “Adam-12.” Just before someone jaywalked or a fight were to break out, an on-board speaker could be engaged like a disembodied voice of God stopping the action and invoking repentance. The speaker was also handy when Office Friendly was in taxi mode announcing his arrival to pick up the kids so he didn’t have to get out of the car…lest someone come and steal the auto while the engine were running.
The squad car also brought status. Bad-boy (and girl) friends were impressed when Officer Friendly’s nine-year-old brother first arrived at school in the back of Adam-5 (his actual first car), for goody-two-shoes had FINALLY gotten into trouble! And when discovering the busting cop was mon frere, they were more impressed, certain that when THEY got into trouble, they knew a cop who could help them.
The summers Officer Friendly had to fulfill his two-week active duty National Guard obligation meant the car was left unattended. Unless, of course, a good neighbor would return a favor and start the engine for a few minutes or wash the car. Middle Brother Claud was such a good neighbor…one of the few times he truly relished Brother Bill having purchased the house next door to ours (moving out was easier than whipping me for picking his lock…did I tell you about the handcuffs?)
Flexing his newly conferred gift of a driver’s license, Brother Claud opted to take his Good Neighbor act on the road, combining the engine turnover and car wash with his other new-found passion, his voice.
Not wanting the neighbors to miss the police presence, and forever looking for a stage on which to sing, what better way to serve his brother, protect the ‘hood, and exhibit his vocal skills than by regaling everyone with a song…from the mobile bullhorn? And so, residents for several blocks would be regaled on summer nights free of charge and commercial-free while, through the speakers of a temporarily high-jacked police car moving at Mister Softee breakneck speed from its streetside parking spot to the homemade alleyside car wash, a 16-year-old Lou Rawls wannabe crooned: “Wwwwwwwwwww-hut’s it all abowwww-T? Al-feeeeeee?”
Lest you think Claud was wrong for borrowing the car and disturbing the peace, consider the source. Surrpetitious sluething was learned behavior. Bill was, and always has been, our comic mentor. Claud added mo-Bill-ity to a concept he’d already observed. For Officer Not-so-Friendly was not beyond parking in a hidden locale long after he arrived home, slouching down in the front seat, and listening cackles from the afternoon “tea” party by the decompressing sorority-sister teachers; or scrutinize Dad’s hedge trimming technique; or Mother just being Mother. In such moments, came Officer Spooky’s invisible voice of accountability, “Did you really mean that, Delores?” “Dad, you missed a spot.” “I saw that, Mother.” Erma’s reference to him as a “dirty dog” was an indication of how far their relationship had changed since his birth.
It was being the neighborhood — nay, the family’s — personal police officer that Officer Friendly, became his friendliest. Reluctantly, but reliably. Get pulled over? Call Billy. Court date? Call Billy. Sibling warfare? Call Billy. In-law trouble? Mrs. Myers (mother or wife), is the Lieutenant home? Flat tire? Domestic domination? And which cousin are you? Death in the family? Hungry alligator? Call Billy. Call Billy. Call…
In time, being the universal cop took its toll. Officer Friendly became Officer Curmudgeon. Officer Recluse. Officer Angry. Officer Hermit. Unless…until…certain people — kids, mostly — came around. Not only would Officer Friendly re-emerge, but along with him his daffy multiplied personalities…Granddaddy, Kahuna, President Bill, Uncle Suctioncups, and, as Mother’s caretaker, Billy became “Bus.” William had come full circle.
Sinbad and other of Brother Bill’s comedy muses is known for his routines insisting grown children leave home. We sometimes tease Bill, wondering if he ever left. Like Dorothy, there was no place like it. Yet, when Mother’s health waned…. Call Billy. So somewhere in the mid-60s (his, not the decade), the semi-retired Bill was back at home with Mother, doing laundry, cooking, hoisting her from commode to bed, playing “Mark” to her wheelchair-bound “Ironside,” medicating her depression with healthy dose of “Cosby” and “Sanford” reruns, percolating her blood pressure with every Colts and Pacers TV game between part-time security jobs and commercial gigs.
Despite his public persona, the Friendly face can be a mask. There were no complaints about playing “Ironside,” except from his knees. On a weekend when Little Big Sister Marva came to take her week’s shift to tend to Mother, Bill went for a checkup because of knee pain he was having. That was a Friday. By Monday afternoon he had a new heart. Why wrap a knee when you can replace four clogged arteries?
You can’t keep a good cop down. And in his time, at his pace, Friendly resumed his role as caretaker of the woman, then the property, we call home.
For us lesser, busier vessels, this was an exacting sacrifice. For Bill, this was fulfilling his life’s purpose. To serve and protect is what Officer Friendly was born to do.
Never Can Say Goodbye
Bill was so born to the job, he wouldn’t leave.
Whereas most public servants can’t wait to retire, and typically do so after 30 years, Bill remained active on the Indianapolis Police Department, and its consolidated successor, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, for a half-century. The had to make him a special gold badge.
He liked it so much, he came back for another.
After his 50th anniversary, he re-upped for another three years as a reserve. In 2016 he finally retired-retired with a soiree befitting a legend: Party, plaques, gold badge, the works. But retiring from the department didn’t mean he retired from police work. You can lead a cop to Medicare… Not having to be on the streets each day only opened new chapters.
He had begun his role as legacy-maker decades before with his blood-kin: He second daughter, Robbin, followed his footsteps into the Army, becoming an MP, then later serving with him on the streets with IPD (between her gigs as “Cheerleader Cop” with the Colts). He administered the oath of office to his two granddaughters as each of them enlisted in the Army.
Yet, his twice-retired heart of a cop yearns to share what he had learned as a policeman for half a century to help the city he loves address matters of violence which were not just increasing on the streets where he served but encroaching the streets where he lived.
Officer Friendly’s mantra had evolved. It was not just, “Call a Friend. Call a Cop.” Now, it’s “Stop the Violence! Start Something!” That story is the next chapter we’ll tell.
To Be Continued.