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'True heroine' honored; Reilly was killed in 1967 while aiding motorist

By Carl Macgowan

NASSAU COUNTY, New York - Kathleen Reilly wore badge No. 1.
Nassau County's first female police officer, Reilly quickly made an impression on her fellow cops even as she faced resistance when she joined the previously all-male force in February 1966. She won over her colleagues, Reilly's family said, with a compelling combination of talent and charm.
"There were [about] 2,700 men on the police department who didn't want her there," said Reilly's younger brother, Terry Reilly, of Vallejo, Calif. "Within six months, she had 2,700 older brothers. They loved her."
The year after she joined the force, Reilly, 28, became Nassau's first female detective. The future looked bright.
But on Christmas 1967, Reilly died while trying to help a motorist on the Meadowbrook Parkway. She was the first female police officer in New York State to die in the line of duty.
At her funeral, then Police Commissioner Francis Looney talked about Reilly's legacy, said her sister, Eileen Myers.
"She did more for the Nassau County Police Department than the Nassau County Police Department ever did for her," Looney said, according to Myers.
After a three-month campaign by the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, Reilly's story was resurrected earlier this month when Gov. David A. Paterson announced that the Merrick Road bridge over the Meadowbrook Parkway in Freeport will be named after her. Paterson called Reilly "a true heroine."
Making a good impression
Known as Kate or Kay to family and friends, Reilly was the eighth of nine children born into an Irish-Catholic family in Baldwin. She graduated from Baldwin High School in 1956.
Her father, James Reilly, was a cashier for the New York City Fire Department. Her godmother, Mary Shanley, was one of the city's first policewomen.
Two brothers-in-law, Joseph Beattie and Michael Labriola, were Nassau police officers. After teaching at a school for disabled children in Suffolk County, Reilly was encouraged by Beattie and Labriola to take the police exam.
She passed and was assigned to the department's juvenile aid bureau.
"She was very proud of it," said Reilly's sister, Joan Labriola, 78, of Wantagh. "She wanted to make sure she made a good impression for the women who followed."
'A gritty little gal'
Reilly inspected bars for underage drinkers, spoke to community groups, led self-defense classes and sometimes worked undercover. Terry Reilly, 63, said his sister once posed as a prostitute to make an arrest. But she felt bad for the man, whose wife was dying from cancer, and argued against his conviction, he said.
At 5-foot-3, Reilly "was absolutely not what you would think a policewoman would be," her brother said. "You picture in your mind someone who was tough and aggressive, but she wasn't like that."
"She was a gritty little gal," said Myers, 74, of upstate Wurtsboro. "As gentle as she was, she knew what was and what had to be."
Looney promoted her to detective in September 1967. Reilly's family believes the promotion was a signal that the police department wanted to recruit more women.
Just doing her job
Three months after the promotion ceremony, Reilly was off for Christmas. Joined by her mother, Ann, her brother Terry and his wife, Margaret, Reilly and her fiance, Robert Beam, were riding to her sister Eileen's Dix Hills house for coffee and dessert.
Heading north on the Meadowbrook near the Merrick Road overpass, the car, driven by Beam, came upon the scene of an accident at 5:55 p.m. Reilly got out to help. When Ann Reilly pleaded with her daughter to stay in the car, Reilly said, "This is my job."
Terry Reilly said he drove to Freeport for help. He returned to the accident site 20 minutes later to find that his sister had been pinned by a third car, driven by a 17-year-old girl from Bay Shore, who wasn't charged.
Kathleen Reilly suffered head injuries and leg fractures. She was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. at Doctor's Hospital in Freeport.
Joan Labriola said her husband, a Nassau detective, was stunned by what happened. "He just kind of fell against the wall, he was in shock," she said.
"The fact that it happened on Christmas Day kind of changed the holidays forever for everybody," said another sister, Ann Reilly, 79, of Las Vegas.
Reilly, who was credited as having died in the line of duty, was given an inspector's funeral. Police saluted as the hearse passed on its way from St. Christopher's Church in Baldwin to Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.
"I've never seen a thousand cops all crying," Terry Reilly said. "You couldn't help but love her."

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