Pauline Wells’ Life Blends Music, Muscles and More
Thursday, August 23, 2018
By Elaine Cushman Carroll Times staff
It was a Wednesday evening and Pauline Wells was nearing the completion of an intensive three-week leadership program for police officers.
She had just been asked to sing at the graduation exercises for the program with no chance to rehearse, and she was preparing to head out at 5 a.m. on Saturday to bike about 165 miles for charity.
Tall and soft spoken, Wells was taking it in stride. She kept her composure, even though she cried a little as she talked about her life.
Wells was promoted last year to deputy superintendent of the Cambridge Police Department – the second woman to reach this rank in the department.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Branvill G. Bard Jr. said he wouldn’t be surprised if Wells someday were to take his job.
“I think Pauline is amazing. She’s got this quiet confidence about her that’s really endearing. I don’t think she has a ceiling; I think she can do whatever she wants to do. She’s capable and humble,” said Bard, in a telephone interview.
Wells is currently one of five deputy superintendents in a department that also has two superintendents overseeing about 280 sworn officers. She serves as the Commanding Officer for Administration Services, which includes the Records Unit, Detail Office, Court Prosecutors Office, and the Property and Evidence Unit.
Bard said he purposely selected her to serve in the administrative role even though it might not have been her first choice because he knew she could handle the discipline of it and it will best prepare her for a future promotion.
He said he got a sense of her style when she was first selected to the post, shortly after he himself had arrived. She came to him to ask for approval on a couple of items.
“I remember saying, ‘Assume you have the authority necessary to do your job.’ Since then, she hasn’t looked back. She’s amazing. It’s the confidence that comes with experience,” he said In addition to her other roles, Wells is a sought-after singer. Bard said when she sang the song “Alleluia” by Leonard Cohen before 10,000 people at the Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C. this year, his social media feed went crazy once they announced she was from Cambridge.
“I always tease her. I t ell her she missed a note, even though she did not,” he joked. “Her voice is so moving.”
A woman of many passions and a can-do attitude, Wells also balances the roles of mother and wife. She has helped people at their most vulnerable and faced personal challenges head on as well.
“I’m a crier,” she said, wiping a few tears away as she talked about participating in the Pan Mass Challenge bike ride for the 13th time this year.
Wells has raised nearly $90,000 to benefit research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and also supports a handful of other charities, much of this through singing at public concerts.
Wells and most of the more than 6,200 who participated in the ride this year have lost someone close to them to cancer or experienced cancer themselves.
Wells, who lost both her parents to ! cancer, was treated for melanoma two years ago but scoffs at being called a survivor because her cancer was easily dealt with by relatively minor surgery.
The riders decorate their T-shirts with memorials and photos of those they have lost or who are struggling, and this is very powerful, Wells said.
“The first time I rode, I remember crying all the way seeing everybody’s pictures. The riders dress up their shirts. There are pictures of kids and everything,” she said in an interview at Boston University, where her training was taking place.
Although her goal each year is to train until the first snow in December and pick things back up in April, life has had a way of intervening, and, she jokes, being athletic, lean, and tall (she is 6’1″) is not the same as being in good physical condition.
Wells said that she rode alone the first year, but “that wasn’t a good idea. There was no one to say, ‘Come on. Let’s go!’” She now has training buddies and puts in long rides in Newton.
Wells used to head the domestic violence and sexual assault unit for the Cambridge Police, and during her first race, she became friends with an older woman who was working with a social service agency that dealt with the same issues.
The Pan Mass ride has several levels of participation, and Wells said the two-day route that starts in Wellesley and covers a total of 168 miles is what she has settled on.
“You never want for anything” at the rest stops along the route or the overnight accommodations at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Wells said.
Her general plan at the end of the first day is to go to Mass, take a shower, enjoy a meal, and ! head to bed.
The fundraising minimum of $4,900 is a challenge and Wells particularly hates asking people for money.
She is married to former Milton Police Chief Richard Wells, who had the idea to hold concerts to raise a portion of the funds. The proceeds from her performances always go to a charity.
Wells also sings at other events.
On Aug. 16, she sang with the Irish Band DEVRI at the Baron Hugo bandstand next to Town Hall as part of the summer concert series.
Wells was raised in North Cambridge, “Tip O’Neill country,” as the fifth of six children. Although her father, who was from Newfoundland, Canada, didn’t sing, he could play the piano by ear and whistle beautifully.
Wells sang in the choir as a child but no fuss was ever made about her singing.
She never thought about being a police officer until she was about 27 years old. At that time, she found herself working 100 hours a week and was about to give up on trying to start a restaurant.
Wells decided to try becoming a police officer after her older sister, Ann DiMascio, who is now a detective with the Cambridge Police, encouraged her to apply.
“I also never wanted to get married or have kids,” she said.
She met Richard Wells in 1998 when she had him as an instructor at the police academy.
She and the several other women in the class “thought he was cute” but she didn’t date Wells for another three years until a mutual police acquaintance slipped h im her phone number.
! Their first date was at the Stockyard Restaurant in Brighton, and “we talked so much, they had to throw us out. I remember getting a salad. I never eat a salad,” she said with a laugh.
The couple was married on July 4, simply because the date was available, and at the reception, she sang the two songs they had picked as “their songs” into Richard’s ear. He liked her voice so much he gave her singing lessons for Christmas.
They traveled to Ireland for vacations and with “Richard being Richard,” she said, he coaxed her until she was willing to sing at a couple of the pubs they visited. At first, she was so shy that she would face away from the listeners.
Wells performs mostly Irish and patriotic songs in a voice that has been described as clear and spirited. She went on to study with several conservatory instructors until she was granted an audition with the world-renowned Robert Honeysucker at the Longy School of Music.
“It ended up to be a long friendship,” she said, again shedding a few tears.
Honeysucker helped her
with breathing, phrasing, and techniques and became an ally. He died last year of a heart attack.
“He’s taken me to a level I could never have gotten to,” said Wells, who has not found a new teacher. “If it weren’t for him and Richard, I wouldn’t even be doing it.”
Her career took off around the 9/11 attacks, when she recalled modestly that people just wanted “somebody in uni form who could sing” at funerals and ceremonies.
In October 2008, Wells was talking to two other police officers at work when she suddenly felt as though there was water in her ear and she couldn’t hear.
She had suffered sudden sensorineural hearing loss and lost all but 15 to 20 percent of her hearing in her left ear. The loss has been permanent.
The lack of balanced sound can mean the end of a singing career for many people, but Wells has made adjustments that have allowed her to continue.
One thing that helps is to have the bass turned off in her monitor when she is performing. She’ll also sometimes turn to one of the other performers in DEVRI for a thumbs-up to show her that she’s on key.
In 2010, on the anniversary of 9/11, she joined with the Boston Police Column of Pipes and Drums and the New York City Police Emerald Society Pipes and Drums to sing before 10,000 people. Richard is a drummer with the Boston group.
“The sound was unbelievable. It was by far the best experience,” said Wells, adding that Fenway Park was also outstanding.
When Wells was asked to sing for the leadership program Senior Management Institute Training for Police graduation last week, she admitted, “I was sweating. I hadn’t practiced for two weeks.”
“I know it’s probably a cliché, but the ‘pay it back, pay it forward’ idea applies,” she said, adding that, of course, she said yes.
Wells said she serves on the Cambridge Women’s Commission with a bunch of “ultra smart” women and this has gotten her to think about her life and her hopes for her own daughter.
“Miss Molly Wells, the love of my life” is how she refers to her 14-year old daughter, who is a freshman at Ursuline Academy in Dedham and a softball player.
“I just want her to be kind to people. One of the women (on the commission) reminded me that she also needs to learn to be kind to herself,” she said.
Molly’s birth followed a five-year struggle for Wells to get pregnant and was preceded by a bout of postpartum depression.
Richard, the chairman of the Milton board of selectmen, has a daughter named Erin from his first marriage. Erin, a police officer in Quincy, is married with three children.
Having a husband with a police background is definitely a plus.
“When he was chief, he was never home. I’m never home now and he’s retired. He gets it,” Wells said, adding that “he was probably not as helpful around the house as I am, though. He was a very good chief. He was very good at what he did.”
At 54, Wells feels she has entered a period of “calmness in my life and in my career. I’m ready for the next thing. You just have to evolve, and I have.”
When she was first on the force, Wells “just wanted to be one of the guys to fit in.”
That changed as she went through a difficult period during which her promotion to lieutenant faced a court challenge. She came through it more determined than ever and more open to possibilities.
Wells said community policing is expanding to where the public is intertwined in the police department, even in setting policy and procedures.
“We used to be t! he secret society. Now we reflect our community,” she said.
Learning about the best practices and what’s happening around the country is enlightening.
Wells said she has been inspired by the thought that “from crisis comes opportunity. When you have a crisis, people are open to change. People want it, expect it, and need it.”
Her job is now “mostly administrative” and not on the street, so her impact is different.
Among her responsibilities is making sure that the members of the force get the training and support they need to respond professionally and with compassion.
A positive shift has been made toward obtaining more peer support for officers after they have been part of a traumatic situation.
“Before, it was always ‘nothing bothers us,’” she said, adding that often she finds it is the older and tougher police officers who have the most to get off their chests during a debriefing session.
After years of working with domestic violence and sexual assault cases, Wells thinks that the most important part of being a police officer is how you treat people.
“You can make a tremendous difference,” she said, adding that it matters how you treat them, keep them informed, and walk them step-by-step through the process.
“You may never get enough evidence, but you can make a huge difference by treating them the way you would want to be treated,” Wells said.