HPD’s six septuagenarians receive special recognition at an April luncheon event in

Tom Kennedy

As tall as the commissioned Houston police officials who are more than 70 years stood at a luncheon on April 22, these six gentlemen were dwarfed by the law enforcement officer who served as a keynote speaker.

Actually no one in the room at Shula’s Steak House in the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel stood high enough to get in the face of basketball Hall of Fame member Elvin “Big E” Hayes, himself a commissioned officer who serves on the Jersey Village police force and as a deputy under Fort Bend Constable Ruben Davis.

 Unprecedented Recognition

This special ceremony honored six HPD veterans who are at least 70 years old with at least 30 years of experience with the Department.

It was a spectacular first-time event sponsored by the Houston Police Officers Union to celebrate the contribution of experienced, well respected role models.

“You all have seen a lot of changes,” HPOU Board Member Gary Hicks told the six men. “The city is safer because of people like you. You have seen the Department come from two or three computers to laptops in every patrol car.

“You all have seen a lot of changes – from cruisers to Tahoos. You have put the footprint out there for doing something right. You are the productive people who teach us how to do things and do them right!”

Seldom has an HPOU-sponsored program generated so many high notes. Each of them sang the praises of the following veteran officers who – the audience agreed – don’t look their ages:

  • Sgt. Ben Norman, at 79 the Department’s oldest officer, with 57 years of experience.
  • Sgt. John Pohlman, 71 and 47 years.
  • Sgt. Ralph Yarbrough, 70 and 44 years.
  • Senior Police Officer Joe Falco, 72 and 40 years.
  • Sgt. Wilbur Robertson, 70 and 35 years.
  • Sgt. Charles Davis, 70 and 33 years.

In case you haven’t done the math, this distinguished sextet account for 256 years of Houston policing experience. And that might be misleading since Sgt. Davis spent seven and a half years in Chicago law enforcement. Falco spent five years on the Bellaire force and three more with Harris County before “I went through the Academy all over again” to join HPD.

Officer Hayes wasted no time in getting into a moving tribute that inspired laughter and strengthened belief in the good guys.

“I wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “I couldn’t so I played basketball.”

‘Tougher, more Strenuous Job’

Hayes and Don Chaney were the first African American players recruited by renowned University of Houston basketball coach Guy V. Lewis. Those two and Warren McVey of the football Cougars successfully integrated major college sports in the southwestern United States.

Hayes was the overall No. 1 draft choice in the National Basketball Association in 1968 and went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA, including some years with the Houston Rockets.

“I spent some time in the NBA. It was some hard work. But now I can say that it didn’t compare to the work I went through in the police academy to become a police officer,” the officer said, his badge prominently displayed around his heart as he spoke.

He identified the common thread between professional basketball players and commissioned police officers and proceeded to cite a major difference.

“You must possess the ability and desire for three things – the desire to do hard work in order to do the best job possible; the dedication to keep working hard no matter how things are going; and always be willing to make sacrifices,” Big E said.

Then he reminded those present that professional basketball players last 15 to 20 years if they stay healthy, while police officers – as evidenced by the day’s honorees – last 40 years or more.

“When I went to the academy to be a police officer, I hadn’t done anything tougher and more strenuous than all the years I spent in basketball.”

Hayes recognized the six honorees as “trail blazers” who are able “to be a shining light to all officers” who in turn will do the same for upcoming generations of police officers.

The very gracious NBA Hall of Famer and current police officer signed autographs for literally everyone in the room and posed for dozens of pictures.

However, Hayes and Hicks, who coordinated the program with strong input from HPOU stalwart, Officer Mary Young, made sure the spotlight never veered from the septuagenarians.

HPD Chaplain Monty Montgomery delivered prayers at the beginning and end of the program. Monty cited Proverbs and told those officers present, “God has miracles for you every single day you’re on the job.”

Regina Woolfolk, HPD director of Public Affairs, presented each honoree with a proclamation and underscored the many years of great work and influence they have offered. Homicide Capt. Dwayne Ready, chairman of HPOU’s Political Action Committee, cited the great legacies being left by each of the six men.

‘Walking Legends’

Assistant Chief Troy Finner, the Command Staff representation on the program, thanked the six men for their service and said, “You are walking legends” and reminded everyone that he has a habit of addressing each of them as “mister” because “it’s important to show respect for how you’ve paved the way for all officers.”

Each of the honorees but Sgt. Norman – who now has more seniority than any of his 5,300-plus HPD colleagues – took turns at the microphone. Without exception each voiced his sincere thanks and took off the figurative hat to the HPOU as well as the African American Police Officers League (represented on the program by Ryan Johnson) for the thoughtful gesture.

Again without exception, the men strongly indicated that over their many decades on the job they seldom if ever dreaded going to work, no matter what the assignment.

They joked that when first approached by Hicks and Young about allowing the Union to buy them lunch in an unprecedented recognition ceremony, they figured they would be meeting at McDonald’s or the Avenue Grill.

The audience laughed.