‘What Matters’ talk by police chief a tale of many firsts

Laura Wilson

Laura Wilson

Stanford police Chief Laura Wilson draws on unique sources of strength, one of them being the color pink. It's the color of her favorite pair of Oakley sunglasses, which she wore during her talk on April 22 for the Office for Religious Life's "What Matters to Me and Why" speaker series.

Wilson, borrowing the idea from a previous speaker, incorporated props that she pulled out of her backpack at various points during her noontime talk at the office's interfaith center in Old Union. Among the items were an American flag, life preserver, running shoes and her pink shades. She wears them in memory of a loved one who died of breast cancer. Wilson, the first woman and first alumna to hold the title of police chief at Stanford, recalled this and other pivotal moments during her time on the Farm.

"I've certainly struggled," Wilson said at the outset of her talk. Though she claimed public speaking rarely fazes her, Wilson admitted she was nervous about sharing what's important to her. Nonetheless, it was clear by the end of her speech that some of the virtues that matter most to her include civic duty, teamwork, empowering others and friendship.

Raised in Houston, Texas, Wilson arrived at Stanford in 1985. It was the only university she applied to, and she hoped to continue her high school running career. At the age of 13, Wilson ran her first race and placed second. From that point on, she won every one-mile race for the rest of high school.

At Stanford, Wilson joined the track, cross-country running, cross-country skiing and cycling teams. She said she came to realize how at home she felt at Stanford while working as a student in the athletics ticket office, and she decided to continue working on campus after earning her degree in human biology in 1991.

As part of her job, Wilson would give Stanford police ticket-sales numbers so sufficient security staffing could be provided. On one occasion, she mentioned to then-Sgt. Nick Brunot that she wanted to be a firefighter. But he persuaded her to look into campus law enforcement instead.

In 1992, Wilson joined the Department of Public Safety as a deputy sheriff, and with each passing year, Wilson became more certain that she made the right career choice. She said her understanding of what it means to uphold the law has evolved from a superficial one of catching scofflaws to a deeper passion to support and defend the principles of the Constitution—namely, that "there should be freedom and equality for all."

She pulled a miniature American flag from her backpack to illustrate her point and confessed that tears sometimes well up when she hears the national anthem. "You'll see that I often don't attend sporting events until they've already started," Wilson said, prompting sympathetic laughter from the audience.

Another item she brought was a life preserver, which symbolized her father's fondness for helping others. He volunteered in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, helped a friend battle alcoholism and offered those he helped out an opportunity to work for his commercial real estate development company.

Watching her father taught Wilson about the value of offering individuals a second chance at life. "If it weren't for the fact that some people took some chances on me, offered me a job to be a police officer, I certainly wouldn't be standing here today," Wilson said.

She then drew attention back to the pink sunglasses. She bought them two years ago while training to break a school record for the fastest mile at the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy. While she was shopping for a pair of ruby red running shoes (an homage to The Wizard of Oz to complement the ceremonial yellow brick graduates received), she spotted the pink shades and they reminded her of Scarlette Blomquist, a cancer-stricken friend.

In red sneakers and pink sunglasses, Wilson proceeded to train for the mile. She did not break the academy record, but she continued to honor her friend, who died a year later. To this day, Wilson sports those shades proudly.

"It is my friends who have bolstered my spirits when I've been low," she said. Without the support of her friends, parents and mentors, Wilson said she would not be in the position to serve Stanford the way she does. Continually working to break down barriers that separate a community, she maintains the view that those in law enforcement are service providers, not authority figures.

After being promoted to sergeant in 1998 and then to lieutenant in 2001, Wilson became chief of police in 2002. Recently, she was accepted into the master's degree program of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Preparedness Directorate and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I'm looking forward to being challenged academically," Wilson said. The program will "enable me to implement changes that will better protect the campus community."

Emmanuel Romero is an intern at the Stanford News Service.