It was a special occasion for a special woman. Island resident, Mary Eileen Fitzgerald, age 95, clad in a salmon-colored suit, was honored by New York State Senator Jose Serrano with a 2018 Woman of Distinction Award on Wednesday, June 27. One woman in each senatorial district is annually selected for this honor by each of the 63 members of the senate. A Rivercross resident since 1977, Fitzgerald exemplifies the Protect and Serve motto of police departments.
Senator Serrano Presents Detective Mary Fitzgerald with an Woman of Distinction Award
Fitzgerald, who served for 31 years in the New York City Police Department (NYPD), is considered a "trailblazer" in the field of police work for women. When she joined the force in 1952, there were few women in the department and until 1969, police women were not permitted to take promotional exams. The only way for women to receive recognition for dedicated and professional police work was by appointment to the grade of Detective. Fitzgerald received such an appointment in 1959. Ms. Fitzgerald also won the June 1971 “Cop of the Month” award, served in the Bureau of Policewomen, the Queens District Attorney’s Squad, the Special Frauds Squad and the Office of the Chief of Detectives.
The ceremony, on Wednesday, took place in the Cultural Center, at 548 Main Street, and was attended by a few of Fitzgerald's relatives and many Islanders and friends. The program included singing of the National Anthem, an invocation by a member of the NYPD clergy, and a presentation by the NYPD Precinct 114 Color Guard.
A visibly touched Senator Serrano felt a kinship to Fitzgerald, "Mary and I have less than six degrees of separation. We are both from the South Bronx and we have this Roosevelt Island connection...Roosevelt Island is a melting pot for New York City. It's fitting that we have such a celebrity here."
Detective Mary Fitzgerald
When presenting the award to Fitzgerald, the Senator said, "There are more than six thousand female NYPD officers today. You helped pave the way for them...I am proud to present you with this award." Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation President Susan Rosenthal agreed; "When Mary took the test, it was only the second time that women were allowed to take it. You, Mary, were a pioneer for all women who came after."
Public Safety Department Chief Jack McManus, speaking of the NYPD community of which he is a long-time member, said, "I grew up in the Police Department. It is a great community. Mary, you know how special you are to us. We are so proud of you and I am honored to be here today." Serrano commented on the importance of police officers and encouraged those present to say "Thank you" or a simple "Hello" when encountering one. "It makes their day better and they need that," he said.
Guests stand for the National Anthem
After high school graduation, Fitzgerald was eligible to attend Hunter College, since her father passed away when she was 15, and her older brother was conscripted to serve during World War II, she needed to work and support her mother. She operated a comptometer – an early mechanical calculating machine – but made little money and saw no opportunity to advance.
A man in her office suggested that she take the exam for policewomen. When the test was offered in 1952, it was only the second time that women had been able to test for police positions. In 1943, the NYPD issued the first combination gun and make-up shoulder bag, which contained a holster for a .38 revolver, a lipstick in medium red, a compact, and a red plastic case of dry rouge. Mayor LaGuardia said, “Use the gun as you would use your lipstick – only when you need it – and use it intelligently. Don’t overdo either one.”
Approximately 1,000 women took the exam in 1952, and Fitzgerald received the fifth-highest score. She was hired. She was fast-tracked through the Police Academy and, after a month, was sworn in. In 1956, her commanding officer recommended her for promotion to detective, and she became an officer in the pickpocket squad. Two years later, she was moved to what is now the Intelligence Division where she stayed until she retired.
Unlike many of her male peers, Fitzgerald was tasked with guarding many female dignitaries, and wives of prominent men. Jacqueline Kennedy often came to New York, and Fitzgerald was assigned to guard her a number of times. Jacqueline Kennedy endeared herself by giving Mary a signed, framed photograph. “I was on my way out of the hotel when a Secret Service agent brought me the photograph,” she says. It now has a place of honor in Fitzgerald’s living room.
She has fond memories of shopping with Queen Sofia of Spain, who knew exactly what she wanted to buy. Aliza Begin, wife of Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister, came here knowing that she wanted to go to Alexander’s, and it was Fitzgerald’s assignment to accompany her. When the wife of the president of Mexico wanted to shop for clothes for her mother, Fitzgerald suggested Lord & Taylor, knowing it had a good selection of clothes for older women. She accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to a United Jewish Appeal dinner, and went to see Lena Horne with Nancy Reagan. When President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson were in the city, she was assigned (with a male partner) to a dinner. When Neil Armstrong came to the city for a ticker-tape parade in 1969 after walking on the moon, Fitzgerald was assigned to City Hall.
Fitzgerald, visibly touched by being honored, thanked Serrano, members of the Color Guard, and a long list of others "for making this such a wonderful occasion." Always humble, she said she didn't feel worthy because "There are so many young, capable women in the Department today who are confronted with many more challenges now with terrorism. We just lost one recently." She invited everyone to continue the celebration with her at the Senior Center "for refreshments and fun."
When asked, by The WIRE, what her favorite part of the day had been, she replied, "Meeting Senator Serrano." It seems that the feeling was mutual.