'Beautiful' honor for granddaughter of town's first chief of police

'Beautiful' honor for granddaughter of town's first chief of police

Freda Dunford, left, is granddaughter of North Providence's first Police Chief George Willis, pictured right.

NORTH PROVIDENCE - When Freda Dunford decided last year to bring a few old items down to the North Providence Police Department, she never imagined the response she would receive.

Dunford, a lifelong town resident, is the granddaughter of the town's first chief of police, George P. Willis, who served in that position from 1903 to 1929.

The items Dunford brought to the police department included her grandfather's badge, his nonfunctional pistol, an engraved watch given to him upon his retirement, and the program from his 1929 retirement dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence.

Dunford said she didn't know what local police would do with the items, which had ended up at her house after her mother died 13 years ago. To her surprise, Chief Paul Martellini and police officials had the items put together in a display case and arranged a ceremony and reception to unveil it to Dunford and her family.

"They presented it to me and I just thought it was beautiful," said Dunford, age 81.

Dunford said she was "overwhelmed" by the kindness of police officials, and so touched by their efforts on her behalf. Martellini said police were happy to have the display made, especially after sitting with Dunford to hear her family's history.

"Our Chief," a poem included in Willis's retirement program and placed in the back of the display case, indicates that the first chief was a likeable kind of guy. It reads:

"There are smiles from Indiana,

There are smiles from Idaho,

There are smiles from Maine to California,

There are smiles from North to Mexico,

There are smiles all over this great nation

In whatever state your footsteps fall,

But the smiles you get from Chief George

Are the smiles that are best of all."

Dunford said she doesn't remember much about her grandfather, or about her father George Willis Jr. who was born a year before George Willis Sr. became chief, but she is still proud of her family's rich history in her hometown.

George Willis Jr. would later serve as the town's "motorcycle cop," doing the service for free. She was only a young girl when her grandfather George and his wife Rose Annie White died, said Dunford.

According to Martellini, the research done by those in his department shows that Willis was known as a man of "ethics, integrity and kindness."

Martellini said he thinks it's important to remember the works of those in the past to have a correct perspective on police work today.

"You need to know where we came from to know where we're going," he said.

A newspaper article in The Evening Tribune describing Willis's retirement banquet offered some clues as to how respected the town's first chief was.

"Gov. Norman S. Case paid high tribute to Chief Willis, declaring that 'the presence here of the five general officers of the state of Rhode Island shows the high esteem in which Chief Willis is held by the state of Rhode Island and the citizens of North Providence,'" it reads.

"Attorney General Sisson made reference to the ability of the chief to fill in at any office in the town and paid tribute to Mrs. Willis," stated the story. "He referred to the guest of honor as 'the King of North Providence, with many faithful and loyal servants.'"

Few people could elicit the outpouring of well-wishers and friends as seen at the retirement dinner for Willis, Sisson told the assembled guests back in February of 1929.

"If you have the well-wishes of those who know you best, I am sure that there is no greater reward that any officeholder or any citizen could ask, and Chief Willis certainly has that distinction," he said.

According to the account, it was "character, honor and ability" of Willis that enabled him to serve long and well, taking even "criticism and abuse with a smile."

An old picture shows that one of the activities that put the biggest smile on the face of Chief Willis was fishing, according to his granddaughter.

Showing just how much has changed in town since 1929, the Tribune account describes how Willis received his gift of an engraved watch from members of the state Republican Party. He himself was the chairman of the Republican Town Committee.

Prior to the appointment of Willis as chief in 1903, the town employed seven town sergeants going back to 1875. Willis was appointed more than 100 years after the town was incorporated.

Freda Dunford, seated at right, accepts a display case containing items from her grandfather George Willis Sr., the town's first police chief, during a ceremony at the North Providence Police Department. Sitting next to Dunford is her daughter, Debra Smith. They are joined by other family members and town and police officials.
A close-up of the display case created at the request of North Providence police officials.