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Celebrating Women

Cumberland County Women’s Hall of Fame will induct four later this month.

From left: Lisa Stewart Garrison, Mary Rossi (posthumous award), Dr. Christine Johnston, and Dr. Dina Rossi.
by Mickey Brandt

The Cumberland County Women’s Hall of Fame will honor four of their compatriots on March 20 at a gala that celebrates daring, accomplished women in many fields and deliberately stands as an example for young women to dream big, work hard, serve the community, and realize that no matter your gender, there are no limits to achieving a fulfilling life and career.

The organization will induct the new members during a ceremony that reflects significant contributions to a profession, the community and/or women’s issues.

The group also gives scholarships to young women who graduate from the county’s high schools and go on to higher education. This annual gala is the major fundraiser for the scholarship fund (see box at right).

The inductees include a woman who, in 1924, was the rare female high school science teacher anywhere; another who taught Prescott College’s first women’s literature class in her junior year there in 1972; a third who was the only female professor in her 10-person educational administration department when she started in 1989 (there were four when she retired), and also a woman who moved easily in more traditionally male leadership positions in her career and continues to do so.

These honorees are Lisa Stewart Garrison, M.A. of Fairton; Christine Johnston Ed.D. of Pittsgrove Township in Salem County; Dina Rossi Ed.D. of Sewell in Gloucester County and, posthumously, Mary Rossi, M.A. of Vineland.

Garrison led the recent effort to designate Bethel AME Church in Greenwich Township part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the sole designation in Cumberland County and the sixth in New Jersey. In her career as a consultant in the philanthropic and not-for-profit sectors, she was successful in guiding many southern New Jersey projects.

Johnston is a Rowan College of South Jersey professor who founded Compass Academy Charter School in Vineland and pioneered the Let Me Learn Program. This approach encourages students and teachers to articulate their perspectives on assignments, express emotions, and devise effective responses. Over three decades, Let Me Learn has been adopted by more than 80 K-12 schools and 45 universities worldwide.

Dina Rossi, with a dedicated team, founded the Cumberland County Technical Education Center (CCTEC) in Vineland. Under her vision, the school opened in 2016, providing graduating students options to pursue academic studies at colleges or universities, combine jobs with continued studies, or enter the job market directly.

Mary Rossi will be honored posthumously. Born in 1903, she began a teaching career in 1924 and became principal at Vineland High in 1942, serving for 22 years until her retirement in 1964. She instilled in students a belief that a healthy body, sharp mind, and strong character result from faith, courage, discipline, and perseverance.

“I think it’s important to honor these wonderful women and celebrate them because they have been an inspiration to so many others, and contributed so much to our community,” said Shelly Schneider, board president of the Women’s HOF.

The purpose of the Hall of Fame, founded in 2007 and led for many years by Louise T. Bertacchi, is to establish annual awards that honor outstanding women, to educate Cumberland County residents about the contributions of women to our society, and to promote the enhancement of women throughout Cumberland County.

The honorees are women who are a part of the history of Cumberland County, and they seem to share some common values.

First, they stress teamwork.

“I don’t refer to ‘me’ very often,” said Dina Rossi. It has always been a ‘we’ effort. CCTEC wouldn’t have gotten to where it is now without the great people around me. One of the reasons to celebrate in this event is because we are celebrating all the people who worked together.”

The members of the group seem modest about this honor and their achievements in general. “It’s humbling to be part of this group,” said Johnston. “There have been so many women who have done so many things and been unrecognized.”

Most of all, the new HOF members see their lives of positive achievement as a guide to younger women and how they can grow to serve within and beyond the county with similar, and greater, accomplishments.

Becky Rossi, who is related to inductee Mary Rossi by marriage and was her nominator, said Mary always encouraged her female students to have careers in education: “She wanted her students to succeed not only in their studies, but also in their lives,” Becky Rossi said.

Mary Rossi set a high bar in much harder times. Women got the right to vote just four years before she started her career. The lesser value placed on women at the time did not deter her from commuting alone to New York City by train during summers to get her master’s degree from Columbia University.

New Hall of Fame member Lisa Garrison, interestingly, is both a role model now and a protege of another hall member: Her grandmother, Emma B. Garrison was inducted posthumously in 2014.

“I always looked up to her, Lisa Garrison said. “She was my hero.”

Johnston wasn’t inclined to accept her nomination at first. Only after discussions about the meaning of the organization and its goals did she move from “whoa” to “wow,” she said.

“Once I realized that the purpose of this was raising the funds for the young women and I could be a part of that, well, that’s where I was going to put my focus.”

The Cumberland County Women’s Hall of Fame organization is a perpetual motion machine, which keeps channeling women’s past achievements and service through the present and into the future.

The Cumberland County Women’s HOF event on Wednesday, March 20 is at Merighi’s Savoy Inn in Vineland, with a cash bar at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. The public is invited. For reservations ($65 per person), e-mail or call 856-692-0133 or e-mail board member Dr. Keith Figgs at or call 856-692-0133.

Hall of Fame Scholarships

As an integral part of showing young women the path to success, the hall not only honors women of great accomplishment but also gives back to the community by focusing on education.

Now in its 13th year, The Hall of Fame scholarships are awarded to graduating female seniors from any of the five high schools in Cumberland County who exemplify these characteristics— academic achievement, community and school involvement, extracurricular activities, and athletic involvement. Applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and be planning to enroll in a school of higher education.

Hall leaders stressed that the success of the group lies in its continuation through the scholarship winners.

“We are all so proud to help these young women further their education and grow into our community leaders of the future.” said Shelly Schneider, board president of the Women’s Hall of Fame.

Completed applications and supporting documentation should be submitted no later than April 15.