For several years now, the Fairfax County Police Department has been preparing for its 50th anniversary, studying history books, scouring old newspapers, searching for pieces of its past.

At a June 30 ceremony and equipment exposition to mark its golden anniversary, the department will salute one of its most cherished finds: James M. Mahoney.

Mahoney, who is 74 and lives in Fairfax City with his wife, Virginia, was one of the six original members of the Police Department.

"He's our link to 50 years ago," said Police Chief John E. Granfield. "It's been 50 years of change, from a handful of officers to 974 officers today."

During his first year as a police officer, Mahoney was paid $100 a month to patrol the county -- all 417 square miles of it.

"In those days, we had the whole county," Mahoney said during an interview at his home. "You'd just ride wherever you wanted to, just try to figure out where the next call was going to be."

To reach the Fairfax police officers, the county's 40,929 residents had to call the D.C. police department.

Because the county's patrol cars were only equipped with radio receivers, dispatchers had no way of knowing if the officers heard them. "He would announce it three times," said Mahoney. "If we weren't in the car, we'd miss it, that's all."

Before the Police Department was created, the Sheriff's Department enforced the law.

Mahoney was a Virginia highway road patrolman, patching West Ox Road with tar one day in 1937, when he was approached by Sheriff Eppa P. Kirby about being one of his four "special policemen" in the Sheriff's Department.

Mahoney took the job and asked what he should do about a gun. "Lemme look back in the closet," the sheriff said. He emerged with a .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with a 6-inch barrel.

"I knew how to shoot it, but I don't know how accurate I would've been," said Mahoney. "They didn't have much training in those days, to tell you the truth."

The county was starting to grow like a weed, and the sheriff was becoming convinced that the time had come for a police department. The county Board of Supervisors agreed, and selected Carl R. McIntosh to be the first police chief. On July 1, 1940, it was official.

"As counties go, this is a whopper," McIntosh wrote in the early days. "It's as big as all outdoors. Maybe bigger. We have here more than 417 square miles -- and all of it has to be patrolled. Now if you don't think that's territory, just get out some day in your jet plane and fly over it."

Mahoney patrolled the county in his Chevrolet cruiser, chasing chicken and cattle rustlers, closing down whiskey stills and keeping the peace at the five dance halls. Police officers knew their territory, and residents knew their police officers.

"Wear your badge like a man, don't hide it!" Mahoney was admonished while trying to work undercover at a dance hall.

One thing Mahoney did not have to put up with in those days was stoplight runners. There were no lights.

Driving the four miles to work each day from his family home in Fairfax Station, where his father was the station agent, Mahoney would not see another car on the road. But by the end of 1940, traffic was already becoming a headache.

During the last six months of 1940, there were 595 automobile accidents, resulting in 336 injuries and 51 deaths. McIntosh reacted swiftly, creating an Accident Prevention Squad.

Even by today's standards, the number of fatalities was extraordinary. Last year, for example, police investigated 55 traffic fatalities in a county with nearly 800,000 residents.

In 1942, Mahoney took some time out to serve his country, joining the U.S. Navy and spending 34 months overseas. On his return to the Police Department, he met his future wife, Virginia, who also was employed by the county.

"This little old gal came in," distributing paychecks at the Police Department, Mahoney recalled. "You have a check for me?" he asked her.

It was love at first sight.

"Some old sailor is getting smart with me!" she reported to her boss.

They were married in 1946, and settled into the four-bedroom Cape Cod in Fairfax City they had built for $12,000. They never left.

Mahoney eventually became captain of the first police substation in Groveton. Throughout his career, Mahoney never used his gun. Not officially, anyway.

"I stopped that cruiser and I said, 'I'm gonna try that old gun out,' " Mahoney said of his Smith & Wesson. Resting the gun on the car window, Mahoney took aim at a hawk and shot it out of the sky. "I think I scared it to death," he said.

Mahoney, who retired in 1968, says he wouldn't trade his memories for anything. "I thought the police job was a right respectable job," he said. "I was proud to be a police officer."

In preparation for the 50th anniversary, the Police Department has had an old Plymouth restored to look like the Chevrolet Mahoney used to drive. With the help of the department's Accident Reconstruction Team -- and many people in the community -- the black car is reportedly so shiny "you can see yourself in it," said police spokesman Peter Fakoury.

The car, complete with custom-made running boards and a pedal-operated siren, is featured on the cover of the current issue of Virginia Police Chief, and will be on display at the anniversary festivities, which are scheduled for June 30.

But the celebration won't stop there. All year long, police officers will wear specially made commemorative badges and more "golden moments" will be published in The Scanner, the department publication.

The public is invited to the equipment exhibition, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the noon ceremony outside police headquarters at 10600 Page Ave. There will be many familiar faces in the crowd: William L. Durrer, police chief from 1957 to 1975; Richard A. King, police chief from 1975 to 1981; Carroll D. Buracker , police chief from 1981 to 1985, and Granfield, the current chief.

The widow of McIntosh, "the father of the force," also is expected to attend. Her husband's spirit will be very much in evidence.

"I hope by this time that everybody has noticed the snappy uniform worn by our boys," wrote McIntosh. "We want 'em to be neat as possible -- and they are. And, I might add, there are some handsome men among them. But, better than that, they are real officers, trigger trained."