Oral History Project:
Autobiographical Stories of Women From Chandler as Told to CGCC Students in partnership with Chandler Museum's Public History Program
Oral History of Clessene Heil  
Written by: Jennifer Hazard and Nick Headley

Clessene Heil Interviewed by Jennifer Hazard and Nick Headley On September 17, 2004

Clessene Heil was born in Rhode Island in May of 1938 on her grandmother’s farm. She is the oldest of three children with one brother between her and a sister 2 years younger. During the turbulent time of WWII, she lived on the East Coast with her family and had to black out their windows on their house so that enemy pilots would not see the lights in their house during air strikes. One of her fondest memories at the end of the war was of a woman walking down the street banging on a drum from an old clothes washer to celebrate the end of the war.

During her childhood, her mother would walk her across the bridge over the Rhode Island River into Connecticut to West Broad Street Elementary School. All her siblings went to this school because the principal was good friends and a former classmate of her father's.

Throughout most of her childhood she lived on a farm and to pass the time she loved listening to the Yankees and Red Sox (“of course we were Yankee fans”) on the radio, sitting on the porch with an iced tea. She also liked listening to the “Inner Sanctum” and the “Squeaky Door” and, on Saturday morning, “Let’s Pretend” brought to you by Cream of Wheat.

Clessene and her family left Rhode Island in September of 1948 and drove their Packard through New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and into Flagstaff, Arizona through Route 66. She remembered her brother and sisters being disappointed because the Native Americans they had looked forward to seeing didn’t have painted faces or feathers in their hair. The family then drove through Jerome and into the Phoenix area through Glendale during the heat of summer. A big treat for the kids was having a “soda pop for a nickel.”

Clessene has been fortunate enough to have discovered many family connections to the past such as the being a member of Daughters of the Mayflower through Richard Warren who traveled on the Mayflower. She also has two indirect relatives who were related to the first white children born in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Her seventh Great Grandfather, Caleb Karr was the first Governor of Rhode Island; and one of her relatives was involved in the Burning of Gaspy where they dressed up as Indians and burned the Mayflower-like ships. The men involved were then banned from Rhode Island and taken to Massachusetts where her relative was involved in the Battle of Lake Champagne with Benedict Arnold and received Lafayette’s personal graycoat before joining and being killed in the Revolutionary War. The widow of the relative who perished at the Battle of Lake Champagne pursued and received the pension of $25/month from Congress after proving their marriage.

After her family had moved from Glendale to Mesa around the age of 10, Clessene attended Franklin Junior High and was part of the last 8th grade class to “graduate” from Franklin, which was later replaced by a large financial center. That class was also the first to be in the new junior high because Mesa High School had only sophomores, juniors and seniors at that time. There was no air conditioning in the junior high and the cafeteria served mashed potatoes, gravy, meatloaf, green beans, a dinner roll, and a dessert for a quarter. Because they were poor, cafeteria food was a surprise treat from the potted meat sandwiches she and her siblings ate.

Her sophomore year at Mesa High was the first time she went to school with blacks and whites integrated. Since eating in the cafeteria wasn’t the cool thing to do in high school, she and her friends splurged on a burger and a Bart’s Lemon Sour Soda Pop for a quarter. During the 1950’s, she was a roper at school and her friends would “go see what the cowboys were doing” in Chandler for fun.

Her parents had a dairy farm near Lehigh (where the new south loop of the Red Mountain 202 Freeway is being built). Every morning she milked the cows before catching the bus to school. She enjoyed school although she “was the little Mormon girl from Lehigh” and laughed when she talked about her then future husband and how he resembled the infamous Danny Zuko from Grease with his “low Levi’s and rolled up t-shirt.” She spent time with her group of friends from school and church, but was not allowed to go on a date by herself, having to do group dates instead.

Her biggest thrills were skinny-dipping in the canal every once-in-a-while and stealing just enough watermelon to share with her friends. She says the fun things they did like that were considered troublesome at the time, but she also says that kids today do those things maliciously and/or to vandalize.

It cost $.15 to go to the old theater and a quarter to go to the new theater. So Clessene and her friends would collect pop bottles to exchange for money to go to the movies. When drive-ins came, it cost $1 per carload and she remembers the creative ways she and her friends would pack in the bodies of a friend’s car. But there were also many church functions for her to enjoy with her friends as well.

Her graduating class of 350 included many instrumental people who would later go on to have very high-powered jobs in Arizona such as Mr. Berge of Berge Ford and the Brown twins from the Brown and Brown auto dealerships. Clessene wasted no time after graduating; she turned 18 on May 21st and entered the Air Force on the 31st. She grew up wanting to be a nurse and had passed all the tests to get into Good Samaritan Hospital’s school and her parents offered to pay her way into school on the condition that she put her younger sister through school. Instead, she decided to join the Air Force “to see the world.” Although she wanted to go into the Navy, destiny had another idea. The Navy recruiting office was closed and the Air Force recruiter encouraged her to take their test. The next thing she knew, she was in Laughlin, Texas for basic training.

When she got into basic training, she experienced racism first hand. She tells of a time when she and the other enlistees went to dinner and the whites were allowed into the restaurant but their black friend was not. Instead of eating, they supported their friend and left without having any dinner. She spent three years in the Air Force and worked in various jobs such as in the Permanent Party Personnel office and also processed pilot applications in Texas and Illinois but she mostly worked at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California which flew into Williams Airfield and Luke Air Force Base. She took advantage of that and flew back home on weekends.

When her parents moved to Texas in the 1960’s, Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Phoenix was running for President. Arizona was seen as an “anti-racism” state so the Texans had strong feelings against anyone from Arizona. The Heil family ended up staying closer to blacks than whites in Texas because of that.

Blacks had to deal with the racism on a daily basis and were only allowed to go to the movies or the State Fair on one night and were told to get off the sidewalk to let whites walk past them. Along with these stipulations, there were segregated drinking fountains and bathrooms. Clessene talked of how Martin Luther King, Jr. was thought to be “the epitome of virtue” by his supporters in the south. Heil appreciates his contributions but questions the bloodshed and rioting over some of his arguments. She says that at that time, the University of Mississippi did not allow blacks but ASU did. ASU was one of the best schools in the country, far better than Ole Miss, but King, Jr. still fought to get blacks admitted to Ole Miss. She wondered why all the fighting took place to get into a school of lesser caliber than what was currently available to them. However she did realize that King, Jr. was fighting for the principle of freedom to attend whichever school you chose.

While she was in the Air Force, her brother had become good friends with Jim Heil and on a trip home for Christmas she was asked out on a date with her soon-to-be husband. After Jim and Clessene were married, they routinely saved up all week to be able to go their favorite place, Pete’s Fish & Chips for an order of fish for $.25 or shrimp for $.50.

During that time, Yuma and Mesa had contests to see which city was the hottest by putting a big block of ice in the middle of a street to see which block would melt fastest. Jim, Clessene, and their friends would go to Center and Main to watch the city’s first stop light change. They also took a trip to Porter’s Western Store in Phoenix to see the first escalator.

While she was working in the Arizona State University Registrar’s Office in 1962, her daughter was badly burned and needed 24-hr supervision. However, her husband worked during the day at Chandler Dodge so she needed a night shift somewhere. One of her co-workers (the wife of the Chandler Chief of Police) told her about a job opening with the City of Chandler Police Department. On her interview Clessene typed 97 words per minute with only two errors. She was hired to the day shift in October for 30 days before transferring to the night shift from 4-midnight. Although she had to take a pay cut of $12/month from the wages she made at ASU, she made just $50/month less than her husband and was able to take care of her daughter during the day.

When she started at the police department, she was joined by 4 other new hires and together they doubled the size of the Chandler P.D., which had its offices in a 2-room building on Oregon St. She along with Betty Munch was assigned to set up and organize the new filing system.

On New Year’s Eve in 1962, the normal dispatcher did not come in so the chief assigned her to do the dispatching for the night. Training consisted of “Press this button when you wanna talk…let go when you wanna listen.” Since she had worked in close confines with the dispatcher, she was able to pick up the police codes quickly. That night she was the only one in the office so she had to do it all: answer the phone, dispatch the patrol officers to the correct locations and book the criminals as they came in. The chief forgot one important piece of information: Casa Grande and Florence shared the same radio frequency with Chandler. Shortly after the first call from Casa Grande came in, Clessene was told how to properly answer the call.

From that night in 1962 until she was pregnant with her second child in 1965, Clessene was the dispatcher for the Chandler Police Department on the night shift. At that time, she was not considered a police officer.

Within those three years, the department made changes to their retirement plan and Clessene, along with the other employees who joined with her, was officially made an officer and grand fathered into the retirement plan from their first day. When they moved to the current City of Chandler Planning and Zoning building, the officers moved the department themselves and made themselves responsible for the layout and functionality of the office. The city was so short on money that they provided the tile for the department, but again, the officers took it upon themselves to do the actual labor of laying it all out. Along with moving to a new building, Clessene was put in charge of the Records. She was also the administrative assistant to the Chief of Police who was put in charge of the newly-created Public Safety Department which was a joint effort of the Fire Department and Police Department. That lasted only a few years before they split the two departments again. Clessene then became Supervisor of the Records Division and the jail.

Clessene also worked with the detectives for several years and was heavily involved in the city’s first conviction of telephone harassment. The department would have the victim set up an appointment with the harasser, but instead of describing themselves to the harasser, the victim would describe Clessene so the harasser would be looking for her. Clessene was then sent into the meeting and got an audio recording that led to the conviction of the harasser. She also earned her marksman badge and was the lead on the home raids because she had better aim than the other officers sent in with her.

Clessene was then given patrol duties; and although she had no actual experience on the patrol beat, her time in records gave her a great advantage. She had read many of the records to learn how things were done on the streets. She also used her intelligence and common sense to earn the respect and trust of the patrolmen she worked with. She did that by not shying away from the input of the other officers who were many years younger than her. When her patrol training was complete, she earned very high scores and was put on the late night shift from midnight to 8. She was given the area south of town, which was considered the rougher part because of the high population of minorities as well as the bars. Because of her business ties (Clessene and her husband owned an auto shop on South Arizona Avenue) and some advice from Sergeant Jim Jones, she had no problems dealing with the incidents she reported to. She was one of the few officers who had broken the color barrier at certain establishments and had earned the trust and respect of both owner and patron. The owners knew she wouldn’t make a scene with an arrest and the patrons knew they would be handled with respect.

It was then time for the Sergeant’s Exam. Her fellow officers encouraged her to take the exam with 10 others. The exam consisted of oral, written, background, and education sections. The department consistently took the officers with the top three scores, but decided not to promote any of the officers that year. That was very unfortunate for Clessene and the City of Chandler because she was just tenths of a point from the first place officer. Their reward instead was to be named Acting Sergeant, and she was put in a position of authority over male officers; because she treated them with respect and allowed them to utilize their strengths, she in turn earned their respect and had a successful partnership on the force.

When her twenty-year anniversary came, Clessene was encouraged to retire and collect her pension. Clessene had a strong desire to remain on the force and continued for over a year before she retired in March of 1983. The City of Chandler had a tradition of presenting every retiring officer with their badge mounted on a plaque in a ceremony. Unfortunately, Clessene faced opposition from some of the men in authority over her and was not granted this honor because of an incident during the 1970’s in which she testified against members of the police department. Upon hearing of the situation, Clessene asked Jim Jones to assist her in receiving her badge. The problem it seemed was that Clessene had been accustomed to hearing and seeing privileged information that the City of Chandler did not want her to reveal to any outside citizens. After confirmation that Clessene would grant the City’s request to keep those things from the media, she was given her badge in a Fraternal Order of Police ceremony.

Clessene, although outspoken in many of her beliefs, advised others to pick their battles wisely. She told a story of her daughter in her senior year at a university in Arizona. Her daughter had a difficult time with one of her instructors but, instead of fighting to the end because of a principle, she did what the instructor asked even though she did not agree with it. That display of self control was one characteristic that allowed her to be the first Heil to graduate from college as she ended up with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Clessene believes that people should exercise their right to express their opinion and that figures of authority should not try to muffle those opinions. That also applied to her children and grandkids. She has very strong relationships with each member of her family which is due in part because there is a mutual love and respect for each other. Her grandkids come to her for advice on issues they’re struggling with as well as just to enjoy a conversation with their grandma.

She does her best to nurture those relationships by teaching her grandchildren responsibility just like she taught her children. Her days in the police department also made a substantial impact on her in how she raised her kids. She saw the trouble that the parents were getting into and she saw their children learning the same destructive behaviors. She decided to make sure she did the most she could to steer her family in a positive direction as well as teaching them to expect and accept the consequences of their actions.

She firmly believes that you have to have the discipline to work hard for the things you want. She has been married for over 45 years and has given birth to 3 kids and is proud of every moment that she has lived. These days her time is filled with many adventures with her eight grandchildren and never has a dull moment. She has lived a life without regrets and wouldn’t change a thing if given the chance.

Photos courtesy of the family.

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