The Arizona Republic, Deirdre Hamill) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES, Associated Press
In this Aug. 5, 2011 photo, rookie Officer Wendy Klarkowski poses at the Surprise Police Department in Surprise, Ariz. Klarkowski, 49, was named the department's Rookie of the Year, making her the oldest officer in Surprise to achieve the distinction.

PHOENIX — Wendy Klarkowski isn't the most intimidating-looking officer on the force at the Surprise Police Department.

Standing 5 feet 3 inches and weighing 118 pounds, Klarkowski is dwarfed by some of the hulking officers in the department.

But she is built with grit and determination, supervisors say. Those qualities led the 49-year-old to be named the department's Rookie of the Year, making her the oldest officer in Surprise to achieve the distinction.

She took some detours on the way to her dream job. A decade ago, Klarkowski was so ill she could barely walk.

Klarkowski took an unusual career path compared with some police officers. She worked as an office manager for her church for more than 20 years, a lifelong dream to be an officer simmering in the back of her mind.

"Right out of high school, I met my husband, who at the time was a highway patrolman," she said. "We got married and we decided to have a child. One of us had to have a normal life, so I was a stay-at-home mom."

One day in 1997, when her son was 12 years old, Klarkowski started having chest pains and labored breathing. Fearing she was suffering a heart attack, she went to doctors.

"They couldn't figure it out," she said.

Her doctor referred her to specialists at the University of Arizona's hospital in Tucson. She learned she had an autoimmune disease that was attacking her heart and lungs.

The treatment was nearly as bad as the disease, Klarkowski said. She had heart surgery, two years of chemotherapy and took medication that made her bones brittle. Doctors gave her special boots to keep the bones in her feet from breaking when she walked.

Recovery was a struggle, requiring rehabilitation exercises to rebuild her bones and years of effort to shed 35 pounds she gained because of her medication.

In 2006, with her health problems mostly behind her, her husband, Bernie, retired and son, Tim, about to graduate from college, Klarkowski decided it was time to focus on her own ambitions.

She became a 911 operator for Surprise police. It nudged at the edges of her dream, but didn't quite reach it.

She'd handle an emergency call and wish she could be on scene to help.

"I could do more than just sit here on the phone," she thought. It seemed a part of her was missing.

Her husband and son pushed her to look into the department's reserve-officer program. Many aspiring officers use the volunteer program to get a foot in the door.

Wendy doubted her abilities. After all, it was less than a decade since she was barely able to walk.

"There's no way," she thought. "These guys are like, 22, 23 . . . "

Tim convinced her to go for it. He told her she had as good a chance as any one of being an officer.

At age 46, after two years as a 911 operator she enrolled in Glendale Community College's police-training program.

She got help from an unexpected mentor. Her son, Tim, had joined the Surprise Police Department a year earlier at age 22. He was pretty good at it, too. He was the department's Rookie of the Year in 2008.

Tim helped her train by taking her to the gym, teaching her pushups and jogging with her on treadmills.

The training was far from easy. Klarkowski, who hadn't been to a gym since high school, learned to scale a 6-foot wall, do 50 pushups and run a mile in less than 15 minutes.

"The first time I jumped over a wall, I was like, 'I hope nothing breaks,' " she said.

She said that being a rookie officer from the Boomer generation has advantages.

Klarkowski isn't easily rattled, for one thing. Viewing her job as a privilege and not a right helps keep things in perspective, something many young people don't have, she said.

"I'm having fun," she said.

Having raised a child also helps her in her job. She finds she's particularly adept at helping parents who have called police for help with their teenage children.

"I can relate to them and tell them something that worked for me," she said.

She said she often finds herself telling parents that, 10 years down the road, when the children are grown, "it will be worth everything you're doing."

Nancy Hecker, coordinator for a career-counseling program conducted by the AARP Foundation, said people who change careers later in life often face age discrimination, lack technological savvy and have physical limitations.

Making the switch successfully requires a "fire in your belly," she said.

Department officials said Klarkowski was named Rookie of the Year based on her passionate approach to her work.

"Wendy's the kind of officer where right out of the gates she's already doing a great job, applying herself as much as she can, but still comes to you as a supervisor and asks, what can I do better?" said Sgt. Bert Anzini, her first supervisor.

"The person that she is, the character she has and her work ethic, it's just phenomenal."

Surprise Police Chief Mike Frazier said that in his three-decade career, he's seen men in their 40s and 50s become officers.

But Klarkowski is the first woman he's known to become an officer in middle age.

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"For her, age doesn't really matter," Frazier said. "She's just committed and has the drive that it takes. You have to think, if she was 100 years old, would she try to go for it?"

He praised her as highly motivated.

"There's never any of this idleness, if you will," he said. "She's just always engaged in trying to do the work of the day."

Klarkowski, wary of skeptics, is a bit self-conscious about saying she's "living the dream."

"For me, it's the truth," she said. "It's a dream I've had for 30-something years. If I could go back and do it again, I would do it exactly the same way."

Information from: The Arizona Republic,