SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - “Never let being a girl stop you from pursuing your dreams.” That was the message all three guest speakers, including New Jersey’s Lt. Governor and Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, hoped to instill upon 7th and 8th grade girls during an inspiring special assembly at the middle school sponsored by the South Plainfield Women’s Leadership Committee last week.
On April 22, Guadagno, along with Jeannine LaRue, senior vice president with the Kaufman Zita Group, and Lisa Furr-Gordon, a licensed mortician/embalmer/funeral director, addressed the female student body and shared their personal stories of success for South Plainfield Middle School’s female students. All three women discussed how they never let their gender deter them from pursuing and excelling in their professional lives.
Guadagno was funny, engaging and motivational as she walked around the cafeteria and spoke to the girls about her professional career, which in addition to being New Jersey’s first Lieutenant Governor and 33rd Secretary of State, includes stints as a federal prosecutor with the Organized Crime & Racketeering Strike Force in Brooklyn, an Assistant United States Attorney in Newark and a ranking member of the State of New Jersey Attorney General's Office as well as a teacher at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark, a member of the Monmouth Beach planning board and a borough commissioner.
Taking off one of her high-heel shoes and waving it in the air, Guadagno discussed how many had a preconceived notion that she could not be elected to a high-power, typically male-dominated position simply because she was a female – and one who wore pink and high-heel shoes.
“I was told I when I was running for sheriff that I shouldn’t wear pink. I said watch me,” said Guadagno, who in 2007, proved the naysayers wrong when she was elected the first woman sheriff in Monmouth County’s history. “I didn’t fit the part. I didn’t look like what you expect a sheriff to look like – a man, in a uniform, carrying a gun. And I wore pink. So wear pink if you want to wear pink.”
The Lt. Governor told the students that anything is possible if they get a good education and aren’t afraid to take chances. “If you have the chance to do something you’ve never done before – something no one has done – take the chance. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” said Guadagno. “There are so many opportunities out there. Take advantage of them. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You have to have guts!”
In January, Guadagno attended the borough council’s reorganization and, during this special event, promised Council President Derryck White she would return to South Plainfield to speak at a future middle school event. Over the past few months, Women’s Leadership Committee member Debbie Boyle worked with Guadagno’s office to arrange for her to be a part of last week’s program.
“I really enjoy programs of this nature,” Guadagno said, adding that, overall, her goal is to leave an impression that, years from now, the students remember. “Ten years from now they may not remember my name or my job title but they will remember this crazy person wearing a pink jacket and who took off her heals and what I said,” said Guadagno. “The key here is to be impactful. There are so many different paths women can pursue today.”
Furr-Gordon knew when she was just 12 years old that she wanted to be a mortician. She applied to the Elite American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York when she was still a senior in high school and was accepted as the school’s youngest student. With an associate’s degree in mortuary science, Furr-Gordon completed her residency and initial training at the L.H. Woodward Funeral Home in Brooklyn, coordinating funerals for celebrity families and politicians.
Currently, Furr-Gordon supervises the largest morgue in the state, the Anatomy Laboratories and Morgue at Rutgers University in Newark. In this capacity, she embalms “museum style” for the medical students, maintaining cadavers, laboratories and a morgue daily. Additionally, she is a morgue technician and, on weekends, serves as licensed director at Cotton Funeral Services in Orange.
“When I came up in this field women were not favored as it was labeled a ‘mans field.’ Women were deemed physically weak [but] I was determined to be as skilled and diligent as the men around me. I did not want to be ‘confined’ by what I couldn’t do because I was a woman …” said Furr-Gordon, adding that she is proof that a woman can be just as, if not more, successful as a man. “I gained respect in the industry [and] now I run the biggest morgue in the state. You can do whatever they can do.”
For LaRue, neither race nor gender nor height – she is just under 5-feet tall – could deter her from professional success, which includes a 40-year career in local and statewide politics, higher education and hospital administration. “I became a success in life the day I stopped caring what other people thought of me,” said LaRue. “I stopped asking people if they thought I could do something.”
The first girl in her family to go to college, LaRue was the first woman, first minority and the youngest person elected to public office in Winslow Township. A former English teacher, adjunct professor, college administrator and trustee for Camden County College and Essex County College, LaRue also served as the chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association, was Vice President of Public Affairs from Rutgers University and Deputy Chief of Staff for former New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine. She also spent 10 years as Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Saint Barnabas Health Care System and also served on the Casino Control Commission for five years.
“Little old short me got to look at Donald Trump and tell him he didn’t have the money to open another casino,” said LaRue of the role she played on the commission that oversees and regulates all casino operations in New Jersey.
Currently, LaRue is senior vice president for the Kaufman Zita Group, a West Trenton-based firm specializing in government affairs, strategic communications, community relations, and public procurement & compliance. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it. Don’t let anyone put you in a box,” she told the students.
This was the sixth year the South Plainfield Women’s Leadership Committee has held the special assembly; in the past, the program took place in March to coincide with Women’s History Month, but PARCC testing this year pushed it back a month. Programs of this nature, said Chrissy Buteas, a member of the committee, are intended to be informative and inspiring.
“When I was going to school I didn’t have a lot of exposure to women in leadership capacities. Through this program, these strong females come in – we’ve had policewomen, engineers, celebrity makeup artists, firewoman, among others – and the students see all the possibilities available to them,” said Buteas. “It is not about the specific career path but rather showing the girls that they can be whatever they want to be so long as they put the time and effort into it.”
For the first time, last Wednesday’s program also featured a special component for the 7th and 8th grade boys led by Principal Kevin Hajduk that also featured talks and demonstrations from South Plainfield Police Detectives Lloyd McNelly and Joseph Indino along with K9 ‘Blitz.”