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From a 911 call, a friendship bloomed between Baltimore cop and widow, 98: ‘All she wanted was somebody to talk to’

A 911 call led Baltimore police Detective Wendy Morton to develop a friendship with 98-year-old Haze
A 911 call led Baltimore police Det. Wendy Morton to develop a friendship with 98-year-old Hazel Reed-Oden.
(Wendy Morton)

She was born in the segregated South, and over 98 years outlived those old ways, three husbands and many friends in Baltimore. In the end, few remained to visit Hazel Reed-Oden.

There was a devoted handyman. A nurse. A pastor. Happenstance brought Reed-Oden her final friend: the Baltimore police detective who sat in the back of the church on a recent Tuesday, dabbing her eyes.

Det. Wendy Morton was patrolling northeast Baltimore on the April day the lonely widow called 911 because she couldn’t see. Morton’s routine stop led to regular visits with honey doughnuts, to midnight phone calls for “girl talks,” to dances around the house at which a great-grandmother showed a 35-year-old how to shimmy to Marvin Gaye.

Their friendship ended as quickly as it bloomed, leaving a lingering sweetness. The widow they called Ms. Hazel broke her hip and died Dec. 3.

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“I want to acknowledge Officer Wendy,” the Rev. Denise Sanders, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore, said at the funeral Dec. 12. “She brought joy to Sister Hazel.”

The congregation turned and applauded. Morton cried in the back pew.

Elsewhere in Baltimore, fliers protest police, graffiti threatens cops, mistrust builds of a department wracked by scandal. But here was a small gathering cheering an officer.

Morton, however, isn’t the typical cop. A single mom with red-tinged hair and Wonder Woman on her bracelet, she enjoys Dominican cigars and professional wrestling — her favorite: flashy Ric Flair.

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“Bam Jr.,” she’s called by fellow officers and old friends in northwest Baltimore, where she grew up. She swam the butterfly for Western High School, attended Coppin State University, and joined the force 14 years ago — a rookie brimming with energy, she said, as she hurriedly chased one call after another.

Since then, she has learned to slow down. Policing, she learned, might mean heating a cup of tea for an elderly woman going blind. Ms. Hazel took two tea bags and plenty of sugar.

The 98-year-old called 911 last April.

“My lights are so dim, I can’t even eat,” Ms. Hazel said. “What happened?”

“Your lights?” the dispatcher asked.

“Yeah. My lights have gone down, so I can’t even see.”

“All right, ma’am. Who’s home with you?”

“Just me.”

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The dispatcher connected her to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., but Ms. Hazel called back.

“I don’t have any lights,” she said. “I can’t see what’s going on.”

“Do you know what happened to your power?”

“No, I woke up to put some food in the microwave and it’s just like, whoa.”

“OK. I’ll enter another call for someone to respond.”

Morton was on her way.

Ms. Hazel waited in the modest 1950s home where she lived alone. Always self-reliant, she sewed pleated skirts for her daughters and canned sweet Seckel pears for winter.

She was born in rural Virginia in April 1919, the year Congress sent the 19th Amendment to the states for ratification. It would grant women the right to vote.

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Ms. Hazel left the South as a girl, but never forgot the scald of segregation. Her children, she promised, would be second to no one.

Her daughter, Tonya Gaston, lives in New York.

“My mother said, ‘Don’t you say ma’am to nobody or step back for nobody,’” Gaston said.

Ms. Hazel became the first black school crossing guard in Baltimore, Gaston said. She also worked 35 years as a substitute teacher for Baltimore City Schools. Later, she adventured in Paris, Italy, France. Her travel photos filled albums as thick as phone books, each picture notated with the dates, names and descriptions she wrote on her typewriter: Here she is on a sun-washed Hawaiian beach; there, atop the Great Wall of China.

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Wendy Morton would stop by Hazel Reed-Oden’s apartment to check in on her.
(Wendy Morton )

By her late 90s, Ms. Hazel was losing her vision and hearing. Her memory slipped, but just sometimes. Her wit remained as quick as the whack from her cane for those who sat in the pew reserved for ushers.

That was Ms. Hazel: Deeply devout, sometimes ornery. Don’t be late with her ride to church.

She outlived three brothers, three husbands, one son and one daughter. Two daughters survive her.

“All she wanted was somebody to talk to,” Morton said.

The detective returned again and again to ensure Ms. Hazel hadn’t walked off or left the front door open. Not crime fighting, but policing just the same.

“Sometimes you got to take off that gun and badge,” Morton said.

With her eyesight dimming, Ms. Hazel would gently rub Morton’s hands. Soon the officer was visiting after her shifts to comb the widow’s gray hair and warm her salmon cakes (Ms. Hazel struggled to see the microwave buttons). Ms. Hazel might call Morton at midnight to chat about the old Johnny Carson shows she adored. Together, they browsed the travel photos, gossiped late, danced.

“She would always say that was her girl,” said Gloria Davis, Ms. Hazel’s afternoon nurse.

Morton sometimes visited with her 7-year-old daughter, Zakayah, who peppered Ms. Hazel with questions about segregation, civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr.

Ms. Hazel told the girl that she watched her family get hosed down by white police in Virginia.

“She said, ‘I thought the hoses were just for fire,’” Morton said.

Morton’s own mother, Barbara Morton, died four years ago. It felt like she was with her again, she said.

Ms. Hazel would walk at night, not disoriented but unafraid and sleepless. So Morton parked her police car outside the house while writing reports, just to keep watch.

Sanders, the pastor, said the brief friendship eased a weariness Ms. Hazel felt for life.

“It just brought joy in a gloomy kind of place,” Sanders said. “She was lonesome.”

Then Ms. Hazel broke her hip on Halloween. She began to ask: How far to Virginia? She wished to be buried near her beloved childhood home outside Richmond.

The widow made her funeral plans and paid for everything. Then she stopped eating and drinking.

At her funeral, her face was peaceful in death. She lay in her polished casket, dressed in white, a purple scarf around her neck. She was tiny with age.

The funeral pamphlets called it a “victory service.” Everyone said it: Here was a woman unbeaten by age or hardship.

The congregation applauded her nurse and devoted handyman. They clapped for Morton, too. The detective smiled and raised her hand.

Then she stuffed away her tissues, wet with tears, and slipped outside to await the next dispatch.

Prudente writes for the Baltimore Sun.


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