Sunday, February 5, 2017

Uncovering Stories: Raye Montague - Navy Engineer

Raye Montague made up her mind about her career when she was seven years old. Her grandfather took her to see a one-person submarine captured from the Germans, and when she was looking inside of it, she knew exactly what she was going to do when she grew up. "I always knew I wanted to build ships."

And she did. That day with her grandfather was the spark that drove her to do everything she could to become an engineer. Which was already a challenge for pretty much anyone in the 1950s, but it was infinitely more difficult for Raye. Her mother told her she already had three strikes against her -- she was female, she was black, and her educational opportunities were severely limited by segregation -- but that wouldn't be enough to stop her if she was determined. Raye came from a long line of determined people (she was to be the third generation in her family to graduate from college) and it was with their support that she pushed herself to do well in school and find ways to work around the barriers society set for her because of her race and gender.

She finished high school with top grades, but couldn't attend the university she wanted to because it didn't admit black students. So she found a way around that barrier and attended the local black college. They didn't offer a degree in engineering, so she worked toward a degree in business, and took every math and science class she could. By the time she graduated she already had her eye on a job in the Navy.
"I graduated from AM&N on a Tuesday and went to Washington, DC, on Wednesday to take my resume to the US Navy. Arkansas did not have any computers at the time, and I knew that I wanted to work on one."
She started out as a computer systems operator, but kept pushing to advance. When she was told she would need to take night classes in programming, she bought a car, taught herself to drive, and made sure she got to those classes. She knew computers were the key to her career advancement. She also knew the technology was continually changing, and she was determined to keep pace.

Eventually, she earned the attention of her superiors, who recognized her brilliance and her dedication. They started giving her more challenging projects, and she continued to impress them. And she began earning awards. She also earned the title of registered professional engineer (RPE), proving that her seven-year-old self knew what she was talking about.

Along the way she got a lot of negative attention because of her race and gender, but she was used to that. She had already learned how to work around more challenging roadblocks. When her boss told her she couldn't work on the computer by herself, she brought her 3-year-old son in to the office with her. When she was told by a white colleague that she shouldn't accept an award that hadn't already been earned by a white woman, she scoffed at him and reminded him of how hard she's worked.

Eventually she was promoted into a civilian position with the equivalent rank as a captain, working as the Program Manager of Ships, in charge of the entire process of building a ship -- a dream job that combined her engineering talents with her business degree. She was the first woman to earn that position and she took it very seriously.
"I carried the weight of minorities and women on my shoulders at times. Regardless of what happened, I had to try harder."
When President Nixon wanted to see plans for a new ship in two months, no one thought it was possible. Until then, new designs took months to draft by hand. But they turned to Raye and asked her if she had any ideas. She did: computers. Her bosses gave her one month to prove it was possible to use computers to design a ship. She came back with a rough draft in less than a week. And in the process created the first computer design system for building ships.

In 1972, she was awarded the U.S. Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award. In 1978, she was the first female professional engineer to receive the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award.

Watch a short video about her life and work.
Check out a series of interviews with her talking about growing up in Little Rock and Pine Buff and how she became a ground breaking engineer, organizations she belonged to as an adult, working for the Navy, and advice from her life.

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