Imagine a policeman whose first beat in 1902 took him past the shop where Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane; who with his fellow officers risked life and limb amid the catastrophic 1913 flood that paralyzed Dayton, Ohio. Imagine that same man becoming Chief of Police and leading his city through:
* Prohibition and the Roaring 20s
* the Great Depression
* arrest of gangster John Dillinger
* World War II
* a post-war labor strike so massive (10,000 participants) and violent it required the National Guard.
Now meet Chief Rudolph Wurstner. He was real.
Ten years into his role as chief of police, he became the nation’s most senior metropolitan police commander. By the time he retired in 1949, that distinction had been equaled only three times in U.S. history.
I never intended to give an actual historical figure a speaking role in the Maggie Sullivan mystery series, which features a female private eye in Dayton between 1938-1947. Yet to my amazement — and delight — in the third and latest book, DON’T DARE A DAME, Rudy Wurstner found his way in.
Perhaps it was the implacable determination of his mouth which drew me initially. I saw his photo, in full chief’s regalia, in the excellent exhibit which the Dayton Police Historical Foundation staged in 2008. Later I came across this picture of him as a very young constable at a time when uniforms still included the bobby-style hat.
Same mouth. Set. Firm, if not outright stern. Yet there was a gentleness to the eyes. The gaze was direct, the sort that misses nothing. Yet I saw compassion there as well. Somehow, taken together, they suggested that formidable mouth might sometimes twitch with amusement.
The more I dipped into various aspects of Dayton life during the era I write about, the more I encountered references to Chief Wurstner. And the more I realized what an amazing individual he must have been.
Certainly there are better known local luminaries from that era: Orville Wright, surviving brother of the duo that taught the world how to fly. Charles F. Kettering, the engineering genius whose numerous inventions included the automobile self-starter. John “Cash” Patterson who invented the cash register. James M. Cox, a newspaper magnate who won election as Ohio’s governor and ran unsuccessfully as the 1920 Democratic candidate for vice president.
But Rudy Wurstner was an innovator as well. He constantly saw opportunities to make policing better. In 1940, prior to a visit to the city by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dayton’s police department became the first in the nation to equip all its motorized vehicles with two-way radios. Six years earlier, they had established the second police firearms ballistics laboratory in Ohio.
What did he consider his greatest accomplishment? The fact he ran a clean department. During his tenure as chief, there was not so much as a hint of dishonesty involving the Dayton police.
The men (and a few women) who served under him, admired him for his fairness. He was a square shooter and he expected the same from them. Those on the receiving end of a chewing out say he leveled a mean index finger.
This summer I was fortunate to meet Chief Wurstner’s grandson, Jack Barstow. He shared wonderful stories of what “the Chief” was like at home, along with family photographs.
In one, that firm, uncompromising mouth has lapsed into an impish smile.
(For more information on Chief Wurstner and a lively history of Dayton’s policing from its earliest beginnings, visit http://www.daytonpolicehistory.org. Photos of Chief Wurstner are used with their permission.)
M. Ruth Myers, December 2, 2013