Kathy Wuorinen was a rookie St. Paul cop, working patrol alone in 1989, when a teenager pointed a gun at her and pulled the trigger.

"He didn't say anything," said Wuorinen, who had stopped him for speeding and straddling traffic lanes. "He smirked."

The gun only clicked.

"I could see the guy was very surprised that that happened, and he tried to fix the gun so it would fire," Wuorinen said. "I did not think I was going to die, because I knew I was trained well."

Wuorinen fired back, jumped inside her squad and sped after the car, which the teen ditched before running away.

Uninjured and undeterred from a career in law enforcement, Wuorinen worked her way up the ranks as a detective and then to assistant chief. Wuorinen retired Friday, having attained the highest rank of any woman in the St. Paul police when she served as interim chief for two months in 2016.

Her career has been marked by dramatic cases — she once helped arrest a man who peeped at her at a tanning salon — and historic firsts. It has also exposed her to criticism for mismanagement of the department's crime lab and coincided with a fundamental shift in police-community relations and plummeting interest in police work that has St. Paul and departments across Minnesota desperate for recruits.

Wuorinen, who turns 55 in a few months, took the breadth of her 31 years with St. Paul in stride.

"I have been very fortunate and blessed in my career," she said. "I've never aspired to some of these roles."

Wuorinen grew up on Rice Street, one of four children of a lithographer father and a stay-at-home mom turned office clerk.

Her career was launched by a chance encounter with a deputy and a bird. She was a waitress at a diner frequented by officers when a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy floated the career idea.

She went on a ride-along with him when she was 19. They responded to a call of a bird trapped in a frantic woman's home. Wuorinen captured the bird, a moment she said made her realize how a simple act can change a person's day for the better.

She joined the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office in 1985 but felt compelled to join her hometown police department in 1988.

"I just wanted to be part of a place where people were so happy and loved what they were doing," she said.

After 10 years as a patrol officer, juvenile investigator and narcotics detective, Wuorinen became the department's first female homicide detective in 1998. But there was pushback from some of the male investigators, who were in their late 40s and 50s while Wuorinen was in her mid-30s.

"At some point people felt, because I was a female and was in there so young, that I hadn't earned my way," she said.

In a 2017 interview, Wuorinen was less circumspect in describing the blatant sexism.

"It was really made clear to me early on that I was the token female," she said in 2017. "It took a lot to prove to them that I could do the job, and I will say that some of them still — even though I did work my butt off — … still didn't appreciate me."

Chief Todd Axtell said at a recent promotion ceremony that Wuorinen was a trailblazer whose work ethic backed up her merit.

"You knocked that door open and it's still open today," he said. "You just dug in."

Nancy Di Perna, who was the first woman to become assistant chief in St. Paul, worked closely with Wuorinen for several years.

"Great with victims, great with suspects," Di Perna, now retired, said of Wuorinen. "She was very respectful."

An inspiration

Wuorinen was an inspiration to many, including Deputy Chief Mary Nash, now the highest-ranking female officer.

"For me, coming up through the organization and seeing someone with her confidence, I was awestruck by that," Nash said. "I don't think she focused on being the first so much as she focused on serving the victims."

Wuorinen was appointed assistant chief in 2010. Two years later, public defenders challenged several Dakota County drug cases, exposing widespread scientific failings in the department's crime lab, which was under Wuorinen's broad supervision.

"It impacted me a lot," she said. "It made me double check and triple check everything."

Wuorinen was diagnosed with breast cancer that same year. Relaunching the lab and bringing it to accreditation provided an unexpected benefit.

"I threw myself into fixing the lab," she said, "and it really helped me through my illness."

It was her battle with cancer, which is now in remission, and seeing friends die from cancer and other illnesses that convinced her and her husband, St. Paul police Sgt. John Wuorinen, to retire this year.

They plan to travel — to New Zealand, Russia, Croatia — instead of working in law enforcement.

On one of her last days, Wuorinen watched as Jeff Stiff was promoted to commander and gave a speech recalling how she pushed him to take his future seriously. She then addressed officers at a 4 p.m. roll call before they began patrolling the city.

"Whenever you show up … remember you are meeting someone on their worst day sometimes, and you can impact that and make it a better day for them," she said. "Be safe. Be cautious, but be helpful."