Barbara Schein Finally Gets a Shot at Walking the Beat

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Barbara Schein leans forward in an antique high-backed chair at her home in Wyckoff, N.J. and sifts through the dozens of letters she has received since becoming, in all likelihood, the oldest woman ever to graduate from a U.S. police academy. "This one's from the police department in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.," says Schein, 50, as she picks a letter from the pile of praise and points to the last sentence, which reads: "We are sure Mayor Eastwood would join us in offering his congratulations."

Five feet tall and 120 pounds, Officer Schein is a less threatening figure than the celeb mayor of Carmel. In fact, the dirtiest, hairiest situations she has been in as a $21,000-a-year cop on the North Haledon, N.J. force have been domestic disputes. While Schein may not walk the beat in the South Bronx or intimidate suspects like Clint's screen counterparts, she is resolutely respectful of her first full-time job. "This is my town," she says, "and I feel proud when I put on this uniform."

Earning the right to wear it is the hardest thing Schein has ever done. For four months last summer and fall she and the other 103 candidates at the Bergen County Police and Fire Academy (most of them half Barbara's age) moaned and groaned through two hours of grueling exercises starting at 6:00 a.m. The torturous daily regimen included 750 push-ups, 1,000 "stomach crunches" (lying flat and then raising your head to your knees) and completion of a 440-yard obstacle course. "I was dead by the end of the day," says Schein. "I had so many aches and pains that I bought the store out of Ben-Gay."

Schein made it through the academy without much support from her fellow recruits. When the only other female candidate dropped out after two weeks, Schein felt ostracized. "It was hard being the only woman because, for instance, I had to change in the women's bathroom, while everyone else just changed right there in the gym," she says. "They also had their own cliques, so I ran alone and ate lunch by myself." Schein cracked several ribs on the obstacle course one day, but she never complained because "if they saw you in pain," she figured, "you'd be out."

Ironically Schein's biggest obstacle was a legal one. She had always wanted to be a police officer, but because "they didn't take too many women 20 years ago," Schein settled down with her husband, Edward, who works in a drugstore. She raised two daughters and sold insurance part-time. By the time society became more accepting of the idea of a female cop, New Jersey had passed a law prohibiting anyone over the age of 35 from joining law enforcement ranks. Schein settled for being a "special officer," directing traffic. The over-35 statute was rescinded in 1983, so Barbara applied to the North Haledon squad. The mayor and city council chose two out of 38 applicants. "They picked me and a 22-year-old ex-Marine," says Schein. "Why? I was on the ambulance corps for eight years, and I had been a special officer for 12.1 guess they saw my determination."

Schein's boss, chief Ed Dombroski, says the plucky policewoman "is doing an excellent job." Schein feels there are times—like domestic disputes—when being a woman-in-blue has its advantages. "When I come in with a male officer, the woman will immediately come toward me," explains Schein. "Even the man seems to calm down."

Because of her status as the oldest rookie cop in America, Schein has become something of a media sensation. She appeared on The Tonight Show, and Disney and Warners Bros, have expressed interest in bringing her story to the screen. This celebrity led to some tension with her fellow officers on the 15-person North Haledon force. "At first, I guess there was some animosity because of the attention she was getting and the fact that she is a woman," says Dombroski. "But there will always be some jealousy because of the media coverage and the movie offers."

While fellow officers may still harbor some resentment, Schein has family support. Husband Edward says, "I don't have to worry about Barbara. She can take care of herself." Indeed, Schein's support system is multigenerational. Reports Barbara: "My 6-year-old grandson, Steven, walks around school saying, 'If you hit me again, my nanny will come around and shoot you!' "

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