On October 31st 1947, two police cars collided at the intersection of 7th and H streets in Eureka, California. Both cars had their sirens going and were responding to a call. They didn’t hear each other and in a terrible second, several policemen were severely injured and one, an 18-year veteran of the Eureka Police Force, was killed. It was Halloween and my mother, Mary Lee Carroll, was at a dance at Humboldt State College when, sometime during the evening, her life was shattered when she received the news that her dad, Officer Pete Carroll was dead.
When he died, his children keenly felt his absence and his wife, my grandmother Clara Carroll, lost her best friend. At that time, there was very little compensation for widows. My grandmother received $70.00 which meant, with four children, she had to go back to work as a school teacher. In those days, officers worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day with one day off a month. He made $40 a month and supplemented his income by selling milk and eggs to St. Joseph’s Hospital. No life insurance, no health insurance, no disability insurance—just a lot of showing up and doing your job.
Mary Lee, my mother, was deeply affected by her dad‘s tragic and sudden death. She had no choice but to continue building her life and to do her best to be strong and helpful to her mother, brother and two sisters. She kept his memory alive by telling us kids what kind of man he was. She told us about the wonderful bedtime stories he spun for his children where he, as the grand cop and main character, brought to justice such notorious criminals as Bugsy Malone and Al Capone. He told great stories and his ability to make others laugh was legendary.
It’s one thing to be a much-loved family member but what makes Pete Carroll stand out above others is his enduring reputation as a great cop. In one of the many tributes written about him in the local papers, it says that Officer Carroll knew all the kids in town and most of their parents. As a policeman he innately understood something they can’t teach in police academies. He knew that personal connection with people is the best weapon a cop can have.
Several years ago I met a man who, upon realizing I was Pete Carroll’s granddaughter, told me that when he was sixteen years old, he got caught by the police for vandalizing a building. At sixteen, he thought it would be a real grown up thing to be thrown in “the slammer” and even said as much to Officer Carroll who picked him up. Instead of hauling this kid in, Officer Carroll drove him to his front door, pointed up to the porch where the boy’s formidable mother was waiting and admonished him, “Ok big-shot, now go tell your mother what you did.” The humiliated former big shot slunk off to his fate and grew up to be a good citizen in the city of Eureka.
Officer Carroll saw the need for boys to have a place to go, especially if their home life was not the best and to that end, he helped to found the Boys Club of Eureka. In his obituary it was written, “...Officer Carroll is an example to every officer who places responsibility and trustworthiness above the selfishness of personal desire or preference. Particularly will Officer Carroll be mourned by the youngsters of our community, especially those under-privileged lads with whom and for whom he worked consistently to improve their opportunities and environment.”
My mother remembered that her dad always had some distraught parent at their house who he was trying to help. He was not a counselor, but people felt safe with him and sought out his advice for their problems.
Like many Irishmen he was an expert whistler and for the eighteen years he walked his beat the
people of Eureka knew when Officer Carroll was strolling by. My mother said they knew when their dad was on his way home because the family milk cow perked up her ears at his whistled melodies and bellowed greetings when he was blocks away.
I have a picture of my grandfather dressed in his police uniform, holding my mother who is about three years old. The picture encompasses the two defining things about my grandfather. Love of family and devotion to community. Sixty five years have passed since he died in the line of duty. The Eureka Police Station has a memorial to him and his name is listed on the California Peace Officers Memorial in Sacramento. While I am proud of his accomplishments and his devotion to the people of Eureka, I carry with me a sadness that I never got to hear his stories about apprehending Bugsy Malone and that I never got to hear him whistle an Irish melody.