Slain deputy's uniform going into Hillsborough Sheriff's Office museum

TAMPA — She plopped the albums on the dining table. Dorothy Wilder Alster, 87, sifted through the delicate, yellowed pages filled with photographs from decades past.

One showed Alster and Ben Wilder Jr. laughing in the Philadelphia snow the day he proposed. Another page held a telegram from him. "Darling," he called her.

Alster flipped to the first page of a dark blue album and stared at the large, glossy photo of Wilder, smiling, eyes glinting, dressed in his uniform.

A sergeant for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Wilder was shot dead during an arrest on July 22, 1962.

Dorothy kept his uniform. But after 50 years of safeguarding it in a trunk, she donated it, along with several of Wilder's other belongings, to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The items are among hundreds the Sheriff's Office will display in the agency's first museum, scheduled to open next year in Ybor City.

"He's part of history," Alster said. "I knew he would want me to do that."

• • •

They met at a Philadelphia Baptist church in 1943. Alster was 16 and sang in the choir. Wilder was 19 and in the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Seeing a handsome sailor sitting in the congregation was something," Alster said.

The youngsters married March 15, 1945. Seven months later, Wilder was discharged from the Coast Guard and the couple moved to Ruskin to be near his family.

They had two children, first a daughter, and then, a son. Alster worked as an engineer's secretary and Wilder served in the Sheriff's Office for eight years.

He worked Saturday nights. Alster always waited for him to get home about 11 p.m. before heading to bed.

But on July 22, 1962, he was late.

Alster called the Sheriff's Office. No one picked up. She called the hospital. They wouldn't answer her questions.

Then Sheriff Ed Blackburn and Chief Deputy Jack Dempsey arrived at her door.

"As soon as I saw them," she said, "I knew it was bad."

Alster later learned that Wilder and another deputy, Perry Young, were called to a cinder-block house in Plant City to arrest Clyde Steward Anderson, accused of firing a shotgun at his father-in-law over a fan.

Wilder knocked on the door. Anderson's wife answered and said her husband wasn't home.

Moments later, Anderson appeared with a 16-gauge shotgun. He fired at Wilder, 39, who collapsed to the ground and died. As Young tried to pull Wilder away, Anderson fired a second time, tearing through Young's arm.

An hour later, Anderson bolted outside, firing the shotgun. Deputies shot back and killed him in a torrent of bullets.

Alster remembers the days following her husband's death. She wore a pink dress — one of his favorites — to see his body at the funeral home. During his memorial service, the church was so packed some people sat in the aisles.

The young widow stowed her husband's uniforms, badges and other keepsakes in a trunk.

• • •

For the past two years, artifacts and mementos have trickled into the Sheriff's Office: old laptops, radios, photographs, a traffic uniform from the 1940s.

The items now number in the hundreds, said Maj. Clyde Eisenberg. It was Sheriff David Gee's idea to create a museum that would hold the nearly 170 years of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office history.

"We've never preserved it," Eisenberg said. "It's just fitting that we have a museum to show the history of the office and also honor all of those that have served."

Eisenberg and Alster met about two years ago at a memorial service for fallen deputies. He asked her if she would donate any of Wilder's belongings. Alster declined.

"These things were all I had left," she said.

But in July, a great-nephew working as a deputy in Virginia visited her. He admired Wilder's belongings. Alster changed her mind and asked her nephew to drop the items off at the Sheriff's Office.

They included uniform badges and pins, several shirts sewn with Sheriff's Office patches, pants and Wilder's name tag, the letters still colored in green.

"We're very, very appreciative of her efforts," Eisenberg said. "We don't have any other uniform of that particular type."

The items will be displayed in a 1,570-square-foot historic house.

The white-and-blue trim home, built in 1903, sits on the northeast corner of Ninth Avenue and 19th Street, next to the agency's annex building and a block away from its operations center. It was relocated there from its original location near Nebraska Avenue in May.

Officials said they hope to open the museum next year. Renovations haven't been discussed yet pending the setting of the home's foundation, scheduled to be completed in about a month.

• • •

Two years after Wilder's death, Dorothy remarried and had another son.

Her second husband, Bob Alster, died about four years ago. Dorothy still lives at their Winter Haven home, surrounded by family photographs and mementos, including several of Wilder's belongings, ranging from baby clothes to his high school diploma.

Among the keepsakes is a letter she wrote two months after Wilder's death. It described the last words she shared with him. He hugged and kissed her and said goodbye at 7 p.m. the night he died.

"I'll try," he reassured her, "to come home early."

Times staff writer Rich Shopes and staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (813)226-3386.

Slain deputy's uniform going into Hillsborough Sheriff's Office museum 06/01/13 [Last modified: Sunday, June 2, 2013 12:57am]

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