Portland policewoman turns 100 in Lake Oswego

Sybil Plumlee broke ground in life
by: CLIFF NEWELL The door of Sybil Plumlee’s residence at The Stafford is covered with birthday cards. Two of the people she heard from were President Obama and Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

She was Badge No. 357.

That was the badge number that Sybil Plumlee wore for 20 years with the Portland Police Department, and it was the title of her autobiography, the tale of a remarkable life. Besides being a groundbreaker for women in law enforcement, Plumlee was a mother, cab driver, teacher, Vanport City flood survivor, genealogist, grandmother, great grandmother and now she is one more thing: Centenarian.

Plumlee turned 100 years old on April 29 and celebrated with a big party the next day with 50 family members and friends at The Stafford in Lake Oswego, where she now resides. To do all the things she has done you have to be at least 100 years old. Plumlee is the oldest retired policewoman in Portland.

'I guess it was successful,' Plumlee said of her big shindig.

That's a good guess. Guests included Multnomah County Sheriff Daniel Staton; Lt. Mary Lindstrand, once her long-lost cousin and now a policewoman herself in Multnomah County; and most appropriate of all, the oldest living male retiree of the Portland Police Department and a brother officer, Frank Springer, a mere 99.

Springer told the audience a story that showed why Plumlee was such a valuable member of the PPD. One day a woman wearing a mink coat walked into the downtown headquarters and demanded to see the chief. He wasn't there. Since she couldn't see the chief, the woman decided to let everybody see her. She threw open her mink coat and revealed she was completely naked.

Springer said he was immediately filled with shock, panic and distress. One false move and his career as a police officer might be over. But he had enough presence of mind to send for Badge #357. His exact words were, 'Get Sybil down here!' Plumlee quickly arrived, persuaded the woman to close her coat and gently guided her to more appropriate surroundings.

'I think she took her to a shrink who lived nearby,' said Louie Barker, Plumlee's son. 'Or maybe a clothing store.'

Certainly, every day of her police career did not contain such stunning incidents. But there were plenty of times a woman's touch was a big help.

Prior to putting on the badge, Plumlee was a schoolteacher, and that was an unusual experience, too. One time she had a class with just five students, but they kept leaving until she had only one student left: Her son, Louie.

'There were more snowmen in that town than people,' Barker noted. But the future looked much more promising when Plumlee moved to Vanport, a community between Portland and the Columbia River.

'It was a wonderful town,' Barker said. 'What could go wrong?'

The answer to that question came when the Vanport dike broke on May 30, 1948, resulting in a disastrous flood.

With things like this happening to her, Plumlee figured police work couldn't be much worse.

In any case, 'I liked the money.' The trouble was that she didn't have many role models. Women's Lib was decades away, and in 1947 Plumlee would normally have been told to go home and bake cookies. But that year the Portland Police Department decided it needed to hire a woman police officer. Plumlee saw an ad for the position in the newspaper and joined the flood of 300 applicants; not for jobs, but a job. The Portland Police were being cautious in their move toward femininity.

The 300 applicants took the test and three candidates were selected for interviews. The winner was Plumlee. Angie Dickinson could not have done any better.

Plumlee is now recognized as a pioneer in her field and has received certificates of appreciation from Portland Mayor Sam Adams and President Barack Obama.

But what everyone at the party liked most was her large birthday cake. The frosting showed a map of Oregon and listed every town in which Plumlee had lived. The final chapter of her autobiography could have been titled, 'A Job Well Done.'