For police, a constant amid change

Joan Clark has worked 40 years under 8 chiefs

July 06, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

When Joan L. Cook was hired as clerk for the Howard County Police Department, her salary was $4,300, and the county's public schools were just integrating.

But over the decades, Cook, 57, watched the department's first black officer join the force. She saw the struggles that the first female officer endured. She went from using a manual typewriter to type up police reports to learning how to use a Xerox machine and a computer.

Now, more than 40 years after Cook began working with the department, she has been celebrated by not only past and present co-workers, but also by the eight police chiefs with whom she has worked over those four decades.

County Executive Ken Ulman proclaimed July 1 - Cook's 40th anniversary on the job - as Joan Cook Day. The Police Department also presented her with a plaque thanking her for her service.

"Forty years is impressive, but when you see Joanie's file you realize it's not just the quantity of work, but the quality of her work in those 40 years that's unreal," Ulman said. "Joanie really is the heart of the Howard County Police Department."

To many, Cook serves as the eyes and ears of the department.

"She's not somebody who's just sat around for 40 years marking time," said Police Chief William McMahon. Cook now works as the chief's administrative assistant. "Before I can even get the question out of my mouth, she has the answer."

Cook was 17 when she began working with the department in 1968, just a couple months after graduating from Glenelg High School. As an aide in the school office during the time of racial integration at the public schools, she often had to call the police when fights broke out.

"That's how I interacted with some of the officers," Cook said. "Then two of the officers said I have a knack for this."

Cook was hired as a patrol secretary, answering calls and typing reports on a manual typewriter. The department consisted of 20 to 25 employees, Cook remembers. Now, the department has more than 400 police officers.

"It's amazing," Cook said. "Back when I started, I could never foresee the department this way."

Though Cook loved her job, she said many of her former classmates were opposed to her working for the department. Her office was near the holding area, and as she walked in and out of her office, young people who were being arrested for drug possession often deemed her a traitor.

"We were the bad guys," Cook said about people's perception of police in the 1960s.

But she was not discouraged.

"I loved every minute, from the day I walked in until now," she said. "I love working with people. I see the good in everybody."

Mild-mannered and friendly, Cook, known by many in the office as "Ms. Joanie," reminded the chief to keep his shirt tucked in and collar straight as he prepared for his interview to become a police officer. McMahon said he sometimes chuckles now to see Cook doing the same thing for officers before they walk into his office.

"She really does take a personal interest in the people she works with," McMahon said. "It's like having another mom around. She's keeping an eye on us."

In her free time, Cook enjoys playing electric guitar with her husband, who plays bass guitar. The two went to high school together and began dating after joining the same band a few years after graduating. Cook, a Clarksville native, now lives with her husband in Catonsville. They have two daughters and a grandchild, who all live in Maryland.

Though one of Cook's daughters will be graduating from the College of Notre Dame soon, Cook doesn't plan to retire any time soon.

"It's a milestone, but it just doesn't seem like 40 years," she said. "The people are outstanding. It's a great bunch of people to work with."

As far as replacing Ms. Joanie if and when the time comes, many don't think it's possible.

"I think it's a testament to the kind of person Joanie is that she's been able to work so effectively with so many different chiefs," said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

"They are shoes that can never be filled."

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