Growing up, Sean Barrett knew to look closely at the butcher-wrapped parcels in the refrigerator.
“If there was stuff in the refrigerator that said ‘Don’t eat,’ you didn’t eat it,” he said.
And for good reason.
With a state trooper mom who was on the cutting edge of canine searches in Massachusetts, he never quite knew what might be in those packets in the ‘fridge or boxes in the basement.
Sometimes it would be packets of blood. Sometimes it would be something else. Something, he said, you really didn’t want to know.
“Unless it was clearly labeled, I knew to stay away from it,” he said.
It was all part of life with Kathleen Barrett, the first female state police K-9 officer in Massachusetts and one of a handful in New England in the 1980s trained to find the dead.
Barrett died in 2006 at her son’s Middleboro home at age 53 after a long battle with breast cancer.
She will be remembered every time an officer trains at the new K-9 training center bearing her name at the Middleboro state police barracks. The center was dedicated Thursday.
“She was an inspiration,” said state Trooper Kathy Sampson, a K-9 officer.
Her cases ranged from the search for 13-year-old Melissa Benoit, the murdered Kingston girl found buried in a neighbor’s basement in 1990, to the 1989 search for suspected serial-killing victims in the New Bedford area.
Barrett also was among the K-9 officers who combed the rubble for bodies at the World Trade Center in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
And she and her dog worked in devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Barrett worked with three police dogs over the years: Syrus, Dan and Adam.
The Benoit case in Kingston gave her son the first inkling that his mother’s work was special when the television cameras focused on her and her police dog.
“Everybody else’s mother isn’t on TV,” he recalled Thursday.
Her work went beyond the high-profile cases, however, and she never sought headlines.
When a suspect bolted into the woods off Interstate 95 a number of years ago, Barrett and her dog were there searching.
Rick Brown, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, remembered hearing her voice on the radio that day.
“I got him. I got him,” he quoted her as saying.
“She was always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave,” he said.
Lt. Richard Rollins, commander of the state police K-9 section, said Barrett knew the importance of her work and never gave up.
Barrett was a state police officer for 26 years and in the K-9 unit for 21 of those.
She was, state police Col. Mark Delaney said, one of the top in the field.
Her sister, Madeline Wahlberg of Whitman, said she didn’t realize until recent years in how much esteem her sister was held and how much she had quietly accomplished as she rose through the ranks to sergeant.
What she did know was how much her older sister had taught her growing up, one of five children, including how to cook.
Barrett’s son said that as a child he would “get lost” in the woods so his mother — a single parent — and other state police K-9 handlers could track and find him, often near their then-Halifax home.
The house, he said, would always have dogs, once up to five.
Some were for work. Others had been abandoned, and Barrett would keep them as pets or retrain them for a new home.
“She would always take dogs in,” he said.
There was the dog, “Roadside,” she brought home when he was 9.
“She was on duty and she was driving by and saw a pillow case moving on the side of the road,” he recalled.
The dog was inside.
Barrett continued working after her cancer diagnosis, trudging through woods and swamps searching for suspects and missing children.
The doctors told her to stop. Her son told her to stop.
She kept going.
“What if it were your child who was missing?” she would ask.
Two weeks before her death, Barrett was still working, confined to a desk rather than in the field. When she died, she was surrounded by her family — her last police dog, a German shepherd named Adam, nearby.
A line of state police K-9 officers stood at attention Thursday as the Sgt. Kathleen M. Barrett K-9 Training Field was dedicated in her memory. Several troopers later demonstrated what the police dogs can do.
Her son was given some of the awards that Barrett had received over the years: master trainer of the year award, a state award from the National Association for Search and Rescue.
She was, he would later say simply, a great mom.