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Breaking through the thin blue line

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Beverly Kennedy was in her late 20s when she got her first taste of what it feels like to be discriminated against.

It was 1969 and she was still reeling from the murder of two friends who were shot to death during a robbery at the Playboy Club in Boston, where she worked as the sales and catering manager. She bid them good night at around 9 and the next morning, they were gone. The shooter got away with $15 and some credit cards.

It was that event, said Kennedy, now 69 and a resident of Mount Gilead in Murrells Inlet, that made her decide she wanted a job with “less glamor and more substance.” She wanted to be a police officer, something the former Playboy bunny had never given any thought to before.

She was told the civil service exam officers take before joining the force was coming up, so she went to the Statehouse to sign up.

“I was refused an application,” Kennedy said, a hint of outrage still lingering in her voice more than 40 years later. The reason, she was told, was because she was a woman.

The handful of females employed by the Boston Police Department at the time were matrons who worked in the women’s jails and assisted when female prisoners had to be searched. They were not patrol officers.

“I was just stunned and furious,” Kennedy recalled. “It was two days after my friends had been murdered. I stomped out and I saw the sign for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.”

She decided to go in and file a complaint. Then she started her own investigation of the city’s finances, discovering years of line items for female offers who were never hired.

She took her findings to Joe Moakley, who was then president of Boston City Council and went on to serve in Congress. Not only did he agree to meet with her, he was interested in what she had to say.

With his help, Kennedy was able to effect change and two years later, in 1972, she became one of the first women to join the department as a patrol officer. She graduated from the police academy with 10 other women in its first female class. Kennedy was elected president of the group.

“I didn’t go out to start a big fight or make history. I just wanted a job,” Kennedy said. “I was just angry enough.”

She owes the determination she showed to nine very strong female role models: Her mother was one of four daughters and her father had five sisters.

“They all worked in an era when women didn’t work outside the home,” she said. “They always told me if you want something bad enough and are willing to work hard enough to gain the skills you need, you can have it.”

Newspaper accounts of the hiring of the first female police officers consistently refer to Kennedy as an attractive blonde. She still is and she exudes confidence and competence.

A photo in an article Kennedy saved from the Boston Globe shows graduates lined up in their dress uniforms, which include high heels and skirts that stop well above the knee.

An article in the Herald Traveler from that period quotes Kennedy, who was then Beverly Veseleny, discussing her ideas on women’s uniforms.

“Skirts for court should be a must, but I do hope we can wear uniformed pantsuits on assignment,” she said.

She got her wish, but still has to laugh at some of the discussions that took place about the outfitting of female officers at the time.

“It was foolish,” she said. “I remember there was a discussion about what would be the most feminine gun.”

It was years before most people got comfortable having female officers in the department, she recalled.

“There was a split,” she said. “The younger officers were fine. They had wives our age.” Thus they were a little more comfortable with modern, liberated women.

“The really senior officers near retirement age were great. They were very philosophical about it. They would say, ‘if you stick around in this job long enough, you see a lot of changes and you learn to just roll with them.’

“It was that middle group that was very resistant. They predicted male officers would be killed trying to protect the female officers and marriages would be destroyed. Of course, it just never happened.”

Today, the treatment Kennedy and her classmates received when they joined the force would result in “sexual harassment charges all around,” she said.

It was 30 years later before the first woman, one who graduated from the academy just a class or two behind Kennedy, was appointed police commissioner in Boston. It’s clear in the way Kennedy talks about it that it was a proud moment for her.

Kennedy, who grew up near downtown Pittsburgh, graduated from Pennsylvania State University with degrees in journalism and home economics, and a desire to be a magazine food editor. But she never once regretted the path she took or joining the police force, she said.

“I absolutely, positively loved the job. You see a part of life that you would never otherwise see,” she said.

Through her job as a police officer, she was involved in some major historical events, including court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools. A magazine photo from the mid-1970s shows a young Kennedy talking with other officers outside South Boston High with riot gear slung over her shoulder. The magazine notes she was “the nation’s first recorded helmeted woman riot fighter.”

“That photo was taken in front of the real center of the controversy,” Kennedy said. “It was an extraordinary experience. I called it humanity gone bad. If you speak to police officers, you find they’re very wary of mobs because individual thought processes and humanity get lost in the midst of what becomes a mob.”

Kennedy was with the department for just over eight years. She met her husband, David there. He’s a retired detective sergeant who worked in internal affairs. His office was next door to hers.

“The family joke is I tell people he had to pay me to go out with him,” Kennedy said, a happy grin stretching across her face.

He came into her office one day, saying he needed to do some investigative work that night, but if two men showed up, the subject of the investigation would know something was up. He invited her to accompany him. She would get overtime pay, so she said yes, and that ended up being their first date.

During her second year on the force, Kennedy decided she wanted to practice law and that’s what she eventually left the department to do. She graduated Suffolk Law School, earned a detective’s rating and spent a number of years doing investigative work before being assigned as assistant counsel to the police commissioner.

After leaving the department, Kennedy spent 18 years as a criminal defender in the Boston suburbs.

“Then one day I woke up and said ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” she recalled. “I was successful in part by victimizing victims and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. It took two years to find what I did want to do.”

She started working with victims of domestic violence, spending five years as the director of battered women’s services for an agency in Boston called New Hope. Then she was tapped for one of the most coveted jobs in the state: executive director of the governor’s Commission Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. It came as a surprise since she was “nonpolitical.”

She joined under Republican Gov. Jane Swift and expected to be replaced when Swift left office in 2003, but she served for another year under Swift’s successor, Mitt Romney.

When she left, she and her sister opened a tea room and gift shop in an old yellow school house in Thompson, Conn., that had been renovated. They ran it for three years and Kennedy said it’s the hardest job she ever had, working 12-hour days, seven days a week.

When they sold it, Kennedy went to work for child protective services in Connecticut as a domestic violence specialist. From there she went to Chapel Hill, N.C., where she was executive director of a family violence prevention center. Her husband had been thrilled at the prospect of moving to the Carolinas.

After some trips to the Myrtle Beach area, they decided to head further south and bought a home in Mount Gilead last summer. Kennedy commuted for the last months of her time at the center and technically is now retired. Technically, because she doesn’t expect it to last.

“I tell people I’m temporarily unemployed,” she said. Eventually she’s sure something else will come along that needs her attention, but for now, she’s “passionately committed” to doing volunteer work at the Family Justice Center in Georgetown. She’s an advisor to the board and said “they’ve accomplished miracles in what they’ve done down there.”

In her various roles, Kennedy said she has worked with some young people who are surprised at how she got her start, that only 40 years ago she had to fight to work as a police officer.

“At my last job in Chapel Hill, I had some extraordinary volunteers from the University of North Carolina. They were some of the greatest young men and women I’ve ever met. They were 20 and 21 and they would ask me ‘what did you do before this.’ I’d tell them and they would say ‘what do you mean you couldn’t do this?’ I would just say ‘sit down and let’s chat.

“The world was different,” Kennedy said. “I can’t be angry about it. It was just different and it took a lot of people working very hard to change it, the same as with racism. I was just an accidental part of it, because I opened a door I never planned to open.”

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