She doesn’t like to think of herself as a pioneer, even though she crashed through barriers to do something that’s now merely taken for granted.
“Basically,” Mary Gail Tumlin said, “I just did my job and it was no big deal.”
It was well past time, 55 years later, to make a big deal about what she did.
Tumlin, 80, was the first female officer in the Huntsville Police Department, beginning her 26-year career on the force in 1962. She was also the first female sergeant, the first female detective sergeant, the first … well, you get the idea.
Honored by the Huntsville City Council on Aug. 10 with a proclamation lauding her as “a role model for children as well as young women seeking to wear the police department uniform, “Tumlin responded to the surprised hoopla and the plaudits with typical modest humor.
“I thought I was going to come up here and get a piece of paper and say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,” she said.
Tumlin’s groundbreaking has led to a modern police force with women in myriad roles, with police academy classes full of women seeking to become officers. HPD has gone from recruiting its first female officer in 1962 to having a female sergeant, Tess Hughes, helping to lead its recruiting efforts.
"As we seek to recruit more young women to the ranks of the Huntsville Police Department, they need look no further for an exceptional role model than the woman we are honoring tonight who has dedicated her life to law enforcement, education and community service." – Council President Jennie Robinson's remarks before recognizing HPD's first female officer Mary Gail Tumlin.
Posted by City of Huntsville, Alabama – Government on Monday, August 14, 2017
“First of all, you’ve got to want to do it,” is Tumlin’s message to women interested in police work. “You’ve got to have the desire to help people. It’s rough. It’s tough. You’re not going to get rich. It’s fulfilling when you can help people. If that’s what you want to do and that’s what satisfies you, I’d say go for it.”
Tumlin said her initial worries were about how she’d fit in with her fellow officers. They never tested her, but “they watched me closely to see how I’d do,” she said.
“I knew that my attitude was going to have a lot to do with whether I succeeded or not. I was going to have to prove myself every step of the way and I should have had to,” said Tumlin. “I didn’t want to be treated any differently than anybody else.”
As Tumlin rose through the ranks, she amassed all sorts of recognition, from city and state “officer of the year” awards to recognition from the Reagan White House.
Tumlin was commander of the arson and bomb squads, became a detective and led the felony apprehension team. But perhaps her most gratifying and impactful involvements were at the ground floor of HPD’s connection with the National Children’s Advocacy Center and with the DARE anti-drug program.
It’s been a well-deserved retirement for the Sand Mountain native who teased, “If you want to talk to me, you’re going to have to find me on the river!”
But as she looked back, she admitted, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought it’d be a challenge.
“The Chief (Chris Spurlock) told me something. He said, ‘I’ll tell you something. If you wash out, they’re going to tar and feather me and you.’ And I believed him,” Tumlin said.
“It all worked out.”