The Prince George’s County police officers carried a polished wooden casket Friday through the cemetery at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fort Washington. As friends and neighbors shared memories about the 102-year-old woman inside, one detective wiped tears from her eyes.
Police had come for a final goodbye to Nancy Poore Tufts, a feisty centenarian officers met last year while they were investigating a rash of burglaries and looking for places where crooks might store their loot. The chance encounter sparked a lasting friendship, and when Tufts died in her Fort Washington home Sunday, she had police, firefighters and neighbors at her side.
“I’m just thankful we were able to be a part of her life,” said Detective Tammy Irons, who was among seven Prince George’s County police officers asked to be pallbearers at Tufts’s funeral. “I wish we would have met her sooner.”
Irons first encountered Tufts last summer as she poked around the 102-year-old’s red brick mansion on the Potomac River — a home she assumed was abandoned. Surrounded by knee-high grass and its outside blanketed in green ivy, police thought it might have been a criminal stash house. Making her way past tables and shelves full of dusty books, hand bells and Victorian figurines, Irons heard what she would come to know as Tufts’s iconic call.
“Yoo-hoo!” Tufts chirped from her seat beneath a window.
Police officers soon began checking on Tufts regularly — in part to make sure she was okay, in part because they were fascinated by her stories. Born in London to American parents, Tufts’s family moved to Maryland in the 1930s, cutting a space for a house out of land that was mostly woods.
Tufts eventually earned several degrees, including a bachelor’s and master’s from Syracuse University, and worked as a music teacher. In an interview in the summer of 2011, Tufts said she was sometimes known as the “panda lady” because she let National Zoo officials harvest bamboo from her property to feed the pandas. She also started a local hand bell group.
“She meant a lot to us,” said Detective Jennifer Ivy, who was also close with Tufts. “It was her personality, her wit, and just the knowledge that we would gain from her. . . . Every time you would walk through the door, you would learn something new.”
A quick-witted woman who kept up with current events, Tufts lived mostly independently in her home and used a walker to get around. She had no children, and her husband died decades ago. Police said they worried about her safety, but they stopped by as friends, not caretakers.
“What kept us going there was who she was,” said Sgt. Matt Barba.
Tufts’s funeral was a formal affair, attended by several dozen neighbors, police officers and firefighters — whom family members thanked for looking out for Tufts in recent years. Retired Air Force Col. James E. Poore Jr., Tufts’s nephew, remembered his aunt as a “fiercely independent woman” who “lived life on her own terms.” Poore, 84, said that when he was 5 years old and asked Tufts about an injury she had sustained in a horseback-riding accident, she unabashedly lifted her skirt to show him the scar.
“I would say to St. Peter: Be Alert. Nancy Poore Tufts is on the way,” Poore said.
In July 2011, Prince George’s police officers undertook a massive landscaping project at Tufts’s historic property — a National Wildlife Federation “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” and county historic site — re-planting some of the garden that Tufts had promised to maintain for her mother some 40 years ago. At the time, Tufts gave them a hand-written list of the animals there and a warning not to disturb any of them. She also objected when she thought some bushes were trimmed too heavily.
Detectives said Tufts told them repeatedly, as recently as a few weeks ago, that she wanted to die in her home. Although they were saddened by her death, they said it was exactly as Tufts would have liked.
“I was happy that she was able to pass the way she wanted to, in her home,” Ivy said. “It’s just sad that she’s gone and we won’t be able to enjoy her anymore.”