Anchorage honors policeman shot and paralyzed in 1953 chase

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2006

ANCHORAGE - When police officer William Pfalmer was shot while chasing a car thief in 1953, the city of Anchorage did not even pay him his full day's wage.

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Paralyzed from the chest down, Pfalmer struggled for the next 17 years with his injuries until he died from related complications in 1970. For those years, he didn't work, his wife was a full-time caregiver, and his three young sons grew up eating food their mother bought on sale.

It was a time when the city had no pension for cops or compensation for police sacrifice.

On Friday, 53 years to the day after he was shot, Pfalmer's name was added to the fallen-officer wall at the police department. Chief of Police Walt Monegan called it a long-overdue recognition.

To Pfalmer's three sons, all now in their 50s, it was about honoring a man who, they are realizing, was a quiet community servant who paid a dear price - a man who wanted to work but couldn't and who spent many years in pain. But he was also a man who never complained about what happened to him and who always had a lap for his young sons to sit on.

"Today, this department extends a belated apology for having forgotten one of our heroes," Monegan said at the fallen-officer dedication at police headquarters.

On June 9, 1953, Pfalmer was in pursuit of a stolen Buick on Spenard Road when the driver, a 20-year-old Elmendorf airman, let off a spray of bullets. Pfalmer was shot in the left arm and right shoulder, shattering his spine.

Pfalmer, a 27-year-old World War II Coast Guard veteran who was active in the Civil Air Patrol, the Civil Defense and National Guard, nearly died soon afterward, but he pulled through.

Residents of Anchorage rallied and donated $13,000 to the family, and Pfalmer was named Anchorage's father of the year. Pfalmer spent the next two years recouping at a veterans hospital in California.

Glenn Pfalmer said his father never spoke unkindly about the gunman, Joseph Underwood, and even urged a light sentence when he was convicted.

"My dad didn't want him to be a tragedy," he said.

Glenn said he found out years later that after Underwood had served his seven years in prison he became an engineer for General Electric.

Pfalmer tried moving back to Alaska to work a desk job at the police department, but it was too cold for his poor circulation and other health-related problems, his family said. They settled in California.

To earn money, Pfalmer bought and fixed old cars.

"He used us as extensions of his body, to crawl over the fender and under the cars," said Garry Pfalmer, his youngest son.

"When we got home from school there was always work to do," he said.

"I remember thinking as a child that I was not getting what other kids were getting because they could - go fishing up a creek with their father. They could do some of these things that we could not - camping and what not - (things) my brothers and I were not afforded to do," Garry said. "Then, as an adult, I realized I was much luckier than a lot of kids because my dad was always home. Being in a wheelchair meant he always had a lap, and you were always welcome to sit in his lap."

Garry's wife, Kathee, said, "Bill taught his family that attitude is the difference between an adventure and an ordeal."

Community Service Officer Cathy Diehl-Robbins said the police department rediscovered Pfalmer's story in its effort to document the department's history of nearly 85 years. The department decided to make a gesture toward righting the wrong, she said.

At the ceremony Friday, each son received a case that includes their father's picture, a flag, work patches and a copy of his badge: No. 13.

Pfalmer died the day after Christmas in 1970 at the veterans hospital in Long Beach, Calif.


Information from: Anchorage Daily News,

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