Alice Chandler, considered to be the first woman to serve as an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, died earlier this month. She was 94.
The cowgirl, who held her badge from 1949 through 1951, also worked as a dog breeder, cattle herder, Christian missionary and caregiver during a well-traveled life that took her from her birthplace of Memphis, Tenn., to Irvine Ranch to Africa and back to California.
Born Dorothy Alice Chandler on June 19, 1928, she was one of nine children.
Her family moved out west during the Great Depression. She, along with her mother and two sisters, became caretakers on the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch, where passing cowboys and patrolling deputies taught her how to shoot a gun, Chandler said in a 2009 interview with California of the Past.
Surrounded by cowboys and cattle, Chandler learned how to ride a horse at 16. In 1949, a month after her 21st birthday, she was summoned to then-Orange County Sheriff James Musick‘s office in Santa Ana. He asked her to patrol the land around her home by Peters Lake to scare away poachers and other trespassers, Chandler recalled.
“I had no training other than the deputies out in the field,” Chandler said. “I didn’t have to go to classes. And of course, I didn’t have to wear a uniform.”
After an hourlong interview, Musick handed Chandler a badge and a signed identification card that granted her police authority. But the job didn’t pay, and she had to use her own gun and horse, Chandler said.
As a special deputy, Chandler would be on call working for and patrolling property owned by the Irvine Co. — holdings that would ultimately play a pivotal role in the development of Orange County.
Chandler was at a slight disadvantage when she first started. Her personal gun, a Smith & Wesson .32-caliber revolver, had a long barrel that was not suitable for horseback riding.
“I put it in my holster and every time I got on the horse, it was so big it kept getting in the way,” Chandler said. “So, I told my mom. I don’t know where she got the money. I said, ‘I’ve got to have a smaller gun.’”
Looking back, Chandler appreciated her mother’s tenacity in helping her fulfill the deputy role.
“Can you imagine a mother in that day and age, knowing that her daughter’s going to be a deputy sheriff, and not saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that dear. You might get killed or you might whatever’? Not my mom,” Chandler said.
Pictures her mother took with a Kodak Brownie captured Chandler with her golden curls and cowboy boots, sporting a pistol and her deputy’s badge.
Chandler never used her gun while on patrol and never made an arrest, because people respected the badge.
“In those days, all you needed to do was ride your horse for people to turn around,” said Ray Grimes, curator of the Orange County Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center.
As Chandler put it in 2008, according to her biography from the museum, “I was just at the house, and we watched to see if somebody came; we could see cars down the dirt road. I rode my horse around, with my badge and my gun, once in a while. Believe it or not, the trespassing stopped. I have a feeling it wasn’t just me, but it may have been that the trespassers said, ‘We got a deputy sheriff over there.’”
Chandler’s career in law enforcement ended shortly after it started, when her family relocated from Irvine Ranch and bought their own, more modest plot of land. She continued to ride horses, learn rodeo skills and herd cattle, according to her biography.
She and her sister were later hired as extras for the 1957 film “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Eventually, she and her sister earned their own pilot’s licenses with help from their mother, Chandler told the Orange County Register in 2012.
In the 1970s, the family’s property was lost to foreclosure, Grimes said, and the Chandlers were forced to say goodbye to their horses, dogs and their ranch life.
“Their life changed dramatically at that time when they had to let go of all that,” Grimes said.
Chandler then traveled to Africa as a Christian missionary, the Register reported.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Chandler — who worked as a caregiver upon her return to California, according to the Register — thought about the badge, pistol and sheriff-signed identification card that had long lain forgotten in a toy chest. She wrote to then-county Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to say she wanted to return the items because she did not have any children to inherit them.
“I would love to turn in my badge and card to you almost 60 years after getting it,” Chandler wrote. “I think it would make a hoot of a story, especially if I have never been officially released from the department.”
Chandler did not have any immediate family she was close to and relocated to Leisure World in Laguna Woods later in life, Grimes said. He gave her an Orange County sheriff’s coin that she proudly displayed on the front of her walker.
“She was a real pistol,” Grimes said.
Chandler died June 10 at a Corona convalescent home where she lived for several years, according to her friends.
Current Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes called Chandler “a ray of light to all who knew her” and said she “served as an inspiration for many women in law enforcement.”
“She built special bonds with many women in law enforcement in Orange County and will always be remembered for her spirited personality and warm heart,” Barnes said in a statement. “I send my condolences to all who knew and loved her. She will be very missed.”
One of the women she befriended was former Garden Grove motorcycle officer Katherine Anderson.
In a 2020 outing, Anderson took Chandler to breakfast and then to a horse stable. Chandler admitted that it had been more than 30 years since she last saw a horse up close.
Anderson recorded Chandler pushing her walker and jokingly said, “Slow down hot rod.”
Chandler beamed and said, “I don’t know if I know how.”