Merle Decker was the first female patrol officer hired by the Winter Garden Police Department, and she and her husband, Edsel, were the first husband-wife team employed at the station.
For Edsel and Merle Decker, 1970 was a great year. He graduated from the police academy on his birthday and met his future bride when she applied for a position with the Winter Garden Police Department. They were married Oct. 2; two weeks later, she graduated from the police academy, and they attended a celebration banquet at the landmark Gary’s Duck Inn, in Orlando.
Merle made history as the first female patrolwoman when she was hired by the WGPD that year. He was a patrolman, too, working different hours, but she frequently rode along with him during his night shift.
“I loved working with her,” he said. “She’d get aggravated with me for not letting her get in harm’s way if we were in a violent situation.”
They were together whenever possible, even earning the nickname Double Deckers in a newspaper article.
The Ocoee couple was married 47 years before her death Aug. 1. Ed said he doesn’t know what he will do without her by his side. Her easy chair sits empty next to his in their bedroom, where they often watched television together.
“I certainly didn’t think I would outlive her,” he said. “Our last seven or eight years were wonderful; they were the best years of my life.”
THE GOOD LIFE
The two were enjoying the senior lifestyle — she was retired from the regional office of the Christian Church and he was retired from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. With five children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, they never wanted for love or attention.
And with a family that big and a love that endured nearly five decades, the memories are plenty.
The pair worked in several positions together, including at the city of Minneola, where she was the city clerk and on the police reserves and he was police chief. They worked together in Michigan, too.
One of Merle’s favorite activities was playing and coaching softball. Hundreds of girls worked to improve their skills under her direction at the West Orange Girls Club, in Ocoee, first on East Story Road and later at its current location on Ocoee-Apopka Road.
“She loved to play herself, and when she got too old to play she got to play through the little girls,” Ed said. “She just loved the game of softball. She was very competitive. She didn’t like to lose.”
She didn’t like losing to Ed, either, when they played a friendly game of card games, such as Rummy or Hand and Foot.
Their support and admiration of each other was mutual.
“I loved that Southern accent she had,” Ed said. “And her sweet smile. She had such an infectious smile with plenty of love to go around. I loved to talk to her. It was her personality. I always thought she was a beautiful person; very kind.”
She shared her kindness wherever she went.
“When she was coaching little girls and they were on the field, and if they tried, even if they failed, she would go out on the field and hug them right there,” Ed said. “She was encouraging. She was never rough on the girls.”
One of those little girls she coached was her granddaughter, then 4. Years later, this grandchild earned a college softball scholarship.
Softball was as much Ed’s game as it was Merle’s. They played on numerous co-ed teams, sometimes with their own children and Merle’s brother, Bob Cockcroft, who put in a good word to then-Chief Charles Nelson and helped her get her job at the Winter Garden Police Department.
Longtime residents might remember Merle as the foot-patrol officer in downtown Winter Garden. She was responsible for marking tires and giving parking tickets for overparked vehicles, served as a school crossing guard for local schools and handled the female prisoners upon arrival at the Winter Garden Jail.
She was a frequent visitor in the downtown shops, too, poking her head in to say hello and check on the business owners and employees.
“Everybody loved to talk to her,” Ed said. “She was so open and easy to talk to.”
After their retirements — his in 2003 and hers five years later — they traveled around the country, visiting family and spending time outdoors in the mountains and at the beach. She accompanied him on trips to the national and world arm-wrestling championships in Indiana and Nevada, where he placed in the senior division both times.
One of Merle’s last activities was helping her 4-year-old granddaughter get ready for the July 4 Little Miss Firecracker pageant in Groveland. She was in pain when she walked, but she was motivated by her granddaughter’s excitement — and ultimate pageant win.
‘SHE WAS MY LIFE’
Merle went to see a doctor when the pain and numbness became too much and discovered she had a ruptured disc. Outpatient surgery was scheduled for July 31.
She went home after the surgery but was rushed back to the hospital because of a medical emergency. Ed said she died after midnight Aug. 1 in the ambulance of an apparent heart attack. She was 73.
“Her heart just couldn’t take all the pain,” he said.
Merle’s death was difficult on Ed, and the following days and weeks are proving to be almost unbearable for the 76-year-old retiree.
He said one thing keeps him getting out of bed in the mornings — the 4-year-old great-granddaughter. Her mother takes her to Ed’s house, where she stays until he takes her to the babysitter. In the afternoons, he picks her up and they wait for her mother to get her.
It’s going to be difficult going through life without his partner, with whom he attended Glad Tidings of God Church and prayed to God daily for their family’s protection.
“I didn’t think I would ever live through it if I lost her,” Ed said of his wife. “I always told her, ‘I hope I go first so I don’t have to live without you.’ … The only way I’ve pushed myself through this is for kids and grandkids. She was my life — and I only have half of it left.”