TAMPA — Pat Coleman did not blaze a trail in the Tampa Police Department for herself. She did it for what she saw as a higher calling.
It was a calling that led her to some of Tampa's grittiest public housing as an outreach worker, one that led her into the living rooms of the youth she mentored.
It was a calling that inspired a life of helping people, both in her work and in the glass ceiling she shattered.
A former detective who broke barriers as the city's first female, African-American officer, Mrs. Coleman died of cancer Wednesday. She was 75.
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To the young people in the Robles Park housing project, Patricia Pierce Coleman was a maternal figure and a dear friend — and all while serving the Tampa Police Department.
"She was like a mother away from home," said Ida Walker, who as a teenager was a member of youth group Mrs. Coleman led in the 1970s. "She'd pile us in her home; she'd take us to church. She was just that role model to keep us off the streets."
Growing up in public housing, it was easy to have little hope, recalled Sheila Parker, another of the teenagers Mrs. Coleman inspired decades ago. It was also easy to fear the police. But "Mama P," as Mrs. Coleman was known, changed that. She always kept a smile on her face. She always offered encouragement.
"She made it all right," Parker said. "She told us that we can be whatever we want to be. She took us in as if we were her own children."
For Walker, that meant helping her land a job with the police; today, she is the executive aide to Chief Stephen Hogue.
"She said, 'Okay, when you go on the interview, you say, 'yes, ma'am,' you say, 'no, sir,' you be polite, you sit up straight," Walker recalled. "She made us want to do better."
She had the same effect on her fellow officers. Mrs. Coleman joined the department in 1965 and became the first black female to ascend to the rank of detective.
She would serve eight years as a sworn officer and then return in 1975 to serve 12 more years as a civilian liaison in East Tampa.
"You can't say enough regarding the barriers she overcame and how she made it possible for things to be better for the ones that came behind her," said Marion Lewis, a former captain. "She set not only just a path, but an example of how to be a police officer."
Coleman was not the only trailblazer in her family. Her brother Arthur Bell, a ballet dancer who was found homeless and reconnected with his family in the '90s after decades of separation, was the first black man to perform with the New York City Ballet.
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The helping did not stop when Mrs. Coleman left the Police Department. Until two years ago, she owned and operated an assisted-living facility, caring for those who could not care for themselves.
When Mrs. Coleman was battling cancer last year, her daughter, Anita Jordan, worried about her. But Mrs. Coleman offered her daughter the same soothing assurances she extended to the teens she once shepherded.
"I have done the job that God has sent me here to do, and I did it very well," Jordan recalled her mother saying.
Jordan asked her what she meant.
Simple, Mrs. Coleman responded.
Said Jordan: "She said she wasn't only on an assignment, but she was to help other people to take on that assignment."
Mrs. Coleman, always the trailblazer and always the mentor, did exactly that.
Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or [email protected]