Liberal Arts, Class of 1971
A trailblazer in the field of law enforcement and the first woman to patrol the highways of New Jersey as a State Trooper, Gail Just-Cornelius was destined to make her mark.
The Dover native and 1968 graduate of Dover High School was a leader from the start. Physically agile and ambitious, she played every sport she could â€“ field hockey, basketball, volleyball, track and field, and boasts that she would have played football if they had let her.
Just-Cornelius attended Dean Junior College in Franklin, Massachusetts, but was there less than a year before deciding it wasnâ€™t for her. She then enrolled at County College of Morris (CCM) in 1969 and earned her associate degree in liberal arts in 1971.
In 1972, she began working as a records bureau clerk at the Dover Police Department. There, she worked with officers from across the state, including a steady stream of New Jersey State Troopers. She would ask questions and her interest was piqued. So she once again enrolled at CCM, this time taking courses in criminal justice, utilizing the flexibility of both night and morning classes.
She applied to the State Police Academy in 1974, not knowing that women had never before served as New Jersey State Troopers. That year, 17 women passed the written test and completed the physical but only three were accepted into the 91st police academy class.
Upon her acceptance, Just-Cornelius took a good look at her skill set and signed up for every class she could to prepare herself for the rigorous training she anticipated.
â€śI took a boxing class, I took a judo class, I talked to people about how to march. As far as shooting a gun, I was already good at that.â€ť
One woman dropped out of the academy on the first day and the other was bounced out one week from completion. On graduation day, January 30, 1975, Just-Cornelius knew she had accomplished something special when reporters clamored for her attention.
Her first assignment was at the Blairstown Station in 1975. Troopers worked two 48-hour shifts where they were required to spend the night at the barracks. It was an adjustment for her, as well as for her male counterparts, but adjust they did.
Throughout her 20 years of service, Just-Cornelius was assigned to the Clinton, Netcong and Newton stations, but her proudest accomplishment was becoming a part of the narcotics unit in 1980. She often worked undercover, purchasing drugs and catching the bad guys. â€śThe biggest high is when they all get arrested and you win,â€ť she says.
She was promoted to detective and married State Trooper Sgt. Barry Cornelius. They have two sons, Michael, adopted from South Korea in 1988, and Brett, who made headlines himself when he was six years old. In 1987, while eating with his mother at a local restaurant, he overheard some teens planning a prank at a local car dealership. At 1:30 a.m. that Saturday night, three young men arrived and the state police were waiting.
Her journey as a State Trooper wasnâ€™t easy. She felt the burden of the women who would follow in her footsteps. â€śIt was a responsibility to make sure that I was not looked at differently,â€ť Just-Cornelius says. â€śTo make sure that I met the standard and that I exceeded it in some cases.â€ť
She compares her challenges to that of an Iditarod sled team. â€śThe first one in the race has it the hardest because they are breaking the trail,â€ť she says. â€śThe second one has it easier because the trail is broken and the first one has hit the obstacles.â€ť
Retired since 1994 and splitting her time between homes in Sussex County and Alaska, Just-Cornelius looks back on her time at CCM with great appreciation.
â€śI liked the idea that I could work and go to County College of Morris because I was able to study with people in the same field I was, and pursue the career I wanted,â€ť she says.