Hidden No Longer!

For the past three+ years I have been writing for Life in Chenal, a monthly magazine with a circulation of over 6,000 copies, which is distributed to all of the homes in our subdivision and hundreds of local businesses. One of my columns, titled “Snapshot,” is always about a Chenal resident. A little over two years ago, a woman named Raye Montegue moved into an assisted living facility in Chenal, and someone in the magazine’s office said I should interview her.  I am so glad I did.  I hope you enjoy her story as much as I enjoyed getting to know this charming, accomplished, good-natured woman and writing about her. –Shari

A Snapshot of Raye Montague, Part 1 of 3
Reprinted from Life in Chenal, September 2018
by Shari Coote

The highly acclaimed, 2016 motion picture Hidden Figures tells the true story of a team of pioneering African-American women who were NASA mathematicians in those early days of the Space Race with Russia.  The women were plagued by prejudice and denied credit for their outstanding work.  We may never know how many “hidden figures” have contributed to advances in science and technology, but one of our Chenal neighbors has been proclaimed to be one– officially.

Raye Montague was born Raye Jean Jordan on January 21, 1935, in Little Rock.  Because she could read, Raye started school when she was four at St. Bartholomew’s (corner of 16th and Marshall Streets).  When she was nine, her mother remarried, and the family moved to Pine Bluff.

Raye’s stepfather was a postal clerk, and they lived in a white neighborhood.  The football field of the nearby school adjoined her back yard, but because she was “a Negro, was what we were called in those days,” says Raye, “I had to walk past that school.  I went to Merrill School, the segregated school, from 5th through 12th grades.  All the other kids had grown up together, and I had come from Little Rock. I became a loner.”

After graduating from Merrill in 1952, Raye enrolled at Arkansas A, M and N College (now UA Pine Bluff).  “There was no quibbling about what I would do.  ‘You will go to college.’  I heard it from my whole family.”  As a matter of fact, Raye is a third generation college graduate, which makes her son, Dr. David Montague, a fourth generation college graduate.  Raye received her degree in 1956, but it wasn’t the career path she had chosen.  That path was not open to Negroes.

From an illustrated book about Raye for young readers.

Flashback now to when Raye was about seven.  It was during WW II, and a German mini-submarine had been captured off the coast of the Carolinas.  The sub was taken on tour and arrived in Little Rock.  Raye’s grandfather took her downtown to see it.  “We climbed all over that mini-sub,” Raye said, “and I saw all of the dials and mechanisms. I asked one of the men on board what I’d have to do to make things like that.  He said I’d have to be an engineer, and then he added, ‘but you’ll never have to worry about that.’  I didn’t know he was insulting me!  I just knew what I wanted to be.”

Back at home Raye told her mother what she had seen and what she had decided.  Her mom said, “He’s wrong, Honey.  You can do anything you want as long as you’re educated.”

“My mother was always ‘the wind beneath my wings,’” said Raye.

A few years later, the kids in Raye’s 8th grade class were talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up.  When Raye said she wanted to be an engineer, the kids all laughed.  “They thought I wanted to be a train engineer, but my teacher, Mrs. Irma Holiday said, ‘Aim for the stars, Raye.  At the very worst, you’ll land on the moon.’”  Mrs. Holiday was indeed prophetic.

Unfortunately, engineering was not an option for African Americans in Arkansas when Raye went to college, so she studied business.  Other doors weren’t open for her either.  After college graduation, Raye headed to Washington, D.C. Designing ships was Raye’s ultimate goal. She was, in fact, hired by the Department of the Navy, but even though she had a degree, she was hired as a clerk-typist.  She never typed a letter.         

Each day the large mainframe computer in her division downloaded information onto large spools of tape.  Raye’s job was to compare the tapes and code punch cards with the data.  After two weeks she asked the engineer if he would teach her how to operate the computer.  “Now if I did that,” he laughingly said, “you’d take my job.” 

A few weeks later all of the engineers were out of the office.  Raye needed her tapes, so she went over to the computer and started throwing the switches in the sequence she’d observed.  “The big boss happened to walk by and see what I was doing.  He came in and asked, ‘Raye, what are you doing?  Do you know how to operate that computer?’”

“No, sir,” I said, “but I know how to do my job.” 

“Well, fine,” he said. “You know more than anyone else here. From now on this is your job.” Raye learned how to use the huge computer, and she started teaching others how to operate the mainframe. Then she was promoted.

Next month: Learn more about Raye Montague’s incredible life journey.

A Snapshot of Raye Montague, Part 2 of 3
 Reprinted from Life in Chenal, October 2018
by Shari Coote

Chenal resident Raye Montague’s story with the U. S. Navy has many parallels to the women whose work at NASA was told in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.  Last month we spotlighted Raye’s youth, her desire to become an engineer, and her early days working at the Department of the Navy in Washington, D. C.

Raye Montague started as a clerk/typist for the Department of the Navy, but she was eventually permitted to learn how to program the Navy’s large mainframe computers.  When she attempted to check out library books on programming, however, she encountered obstacles there, also.  Every step of her professional journey was difficult, but Raye says she “changed obstacles into challenging situations,” something she urges her audiences, young and old, to do today.  “You can be anything,” she says, “as long as you prepare yourself.  We all have many talents.  We may have to take a different path than the one we planned to take.  We may have to take more time than we would like to take.  If someone says you can’t do something, take that as a challenge.  Study hard.  Work hard.  One day you’ll look back and know it was all worth it.”

Not long after learning to program computers, Raye was assigned to work for a racist boss who was determined to derail her career.  The Navy had spent six years and $600,000 working on a specific program, which was turned over to this boss, who in turn assigned it to Raye—in addition to her regular work for the department.  The boss also refused to allocate four-hour blocks of computer time during the day in order for Raye to work on the messed-up program.   Raye went home for dinner with her mother and son, then she returned to her office, debugging and rewriting the Naval Ship Specification System. From that system CAD/CAM (Computer Aided-Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing) evolved.

One night her boss saw her after hours and said, “You can’t come in here and work alone at night.”  Another obstacle!  None of her co-workers would come in after hours to work with her for no salary, so she returned to work in the evening with her mother, who did crossword puzzles, and her young son, who played at her feet.

Raye started making real progress on the program, and someone noticed.  Before long Raye got her own staff to work on the Naval Ship Specification System, and the team was allocated computer time from 4:00 to midnight.  As the system neared completion, Raye asked for a new print chain, one that could do upper- and lower-case letters.  Miraculously, the Navy bought one!  When the Naval Ship Specification System was complete, Raye went to her boss and said, “Now I need a ship to design.”

“No one’s going to give you a ship,” said her boss.

“But things have a way of working out,” said Raye.  President Nixon came along and wanted a new frigate designed to replace the WW II frigates.  At that time the rough draft of a ship took two years to design.  Nixon wanted the plans in two months!  Raye’s boss said to her, “I’ll give you one month.”  He didn’t need to add, “to fail.”  Raye jumped at the opportunity to use the new Naval Ship Specification System on a real ship.  Incredible as it may seem, Raye and her staff went to work that weekend and designed the ship in 18 hours and 26 minutes!  The Oliver Hazzard Perry, FFG 7, was the first ship ever designed on a computer.

Raye’s boss, once a foe, became her biggest supporter.  He recommended her for, and she received, the Navy’s third highest award, the Meritorious Civilian Service Award.  Unfortunately, the award came with curses from co-workers and even threats.  Her office had to be moved from the seventh floor to the first floor near the security office for her safety.  Her boss, however, had been won over by Raye’s dedication, hard work, and success.

“He became my mentor, and he opened doors for me,” said Raye.  “He said, ‘We’ve got to get you recognized by the International Numerical Control Society.’”  Raye was recognized, and in time she became the first woman and the first minority on the society’s board of directors. 

Seventy-one of Raye’s Perry Class frigates were built from 1974-2004 at a cost of $122,000,000 per ship.  Although the U.S. Navy has now decommissioned the Perry Class frigates, twenty-three are still being used by the navies of Turkey, Egypt, Australia, Poland, Pakistan, and Spain.

In 1972, the Secretary of the Navy also recognized Raye’s talents and accomplishments and nominated her for the Federal Woman of the Year as the person who “revolutionized the design process for all naval ships and submarines.”  Raye’s incredible career had taken off.

Next month:  The final installment in Raye Montague’s round-trip journey from Little Rock to Washington, D. C. and back.

A Snapshot of Raye Montague, Part 3 of 3
Reprinted from Life in Chenal, November 2018
by Shari Coote

Chenal resident Raye Montague’s story with the U. S. Navy often paralleled the women in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.  We spotlighted Raye’s youth, her desire to become an engineer, and her early days working at the Department of the Navy in Part 1. Last month we shared her first success, getting the Naval Ship Specification System to work, designing the first ship ever designed on a computer, and the recognition she received from the Department of the Navy in Washington, D. C.

Following Raye’s first ship design, her career took off.  Promotions came her way, responsibilities increased, and accolades poured in praising her work. All the while Raye was shattering glass ceilings for women AND minorities. When the Department of Defense assembled an advisory group to improve manufacturing technology and industry composed of experts from the army, air force, NASA, and academia, Raye was appointed to represent the navy.  

Raye’s job took her all over the United States and Europe where she spoke at conferences and took on new projects.  She lectured at the U.S. Naval Academy and worked with the navies of Great Britain and Australia.  When NASA sent a robot to the moon, its soil-sample-gathering arm wouldn’t retract.  Raye was working on a proposal for titanium wings at Wright-Patterson Air Base at the time.  NASA sent the program with the glitch to Raye and her team.  They had the glitch worked out in 72 hours. 

Raye’s 8th grade teacher once told her, “Reach for the stars.  At the very worst, you’ll land on the moon.” Raye called Mrs. Holiday and told her, “I’ve been to the moon, Baby!”  They had a great laugh!

When Litton Industries was building a ship at the Pascagoula Naval Shipyard, Raye was asked, “Can this ship be unloaded in less than four hours under bombing conditions?”  Raye ran the numbers.  It couldn’t, and she issued forty-nine change orders.  After hearing a woman’s voice, Litton requested another assessment.  The navy trusted Raye and refused Litton’s request.  By this time, Raye, who had received a B.S. in business, was an internationally registered professional engineer, licensed in the United States and Canada, without an engineering degree!

Eventually, Raye was promoted to PMS (Code 309), the first woman to become the navy’s Program Manager of Ships.  She was in charge of a staff of 250 and the procurement of CAD/CAM equipment for 111,000+ people.  Her budget was a cool ONE BILLION DOLLARS!  As the Program Manager of Ships, Information Systems Improvement Project, Raye worked on the design of numerous ships including the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), the navy’s first landing craft helicopter-assault ship (LHA #1), and the Seawolf-class, nuclear submarine (SSN-21), which was her last design project.   

After 33.5 years with the navy, Raye retired in 1990, with a civilian ranking parallel to that of a navy captain (army colonel).  She was presented with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in her honor and numerous service awards.

In 2006, Raye returned to Little Rock after being away for 50 years.  She had worked, raised her son, and buried her mother in Washington, D.C.  Raye’s son, Dr. David Montague, tired of shoveling snow in D.C., had accepted a position at UA Little Rock, and two years later Raye followed David, his wife Whitney, and her granddaughter Riley back to Arkansas.

In 2010, the honors started rolling in. Raye and Katherine Johnson, on whose career the movie Hidden Figures is based, were recognized by Hampton University.  Raye’s plaque reads in part, “…should have been nominated for a Nobel Prize.”  Since the release of the film in 2016, Raye has received more accolades.  Raye and Katherine were recognized again, this time by the Congressional Black Caucus in “Stories That Shaped a Nation.”  Also, that year she was recalled to Washington to be recognized by the U.S. Navy as the “Navy’s Hidden Figure.” 

Raye appeared on “Good Morning, America,” where she was joined by Hidden Figures’ star Janelle Monae on stage and star Octavia Spencer via live feed.  Spencer thanked Raye for her service and said, “You are hidden no longer!”  Last October, Raye appeared on Harry Connick, Jr.’s television show.  The interview concluded with Harry saying, “If the only conversation I’ve ever had is the one we just had, I feel like my life at this show is complete.  It is a great, great honor to have you [here].”

Now 83, Raye continues to be busy talking to and encouraging young people in classrooms around town. And the honors haven’t stopped.  She was named a SPARK by the Museum of Discovery.  Along with Governor Hutchinson, she was recognized by the Arkansas Academy of Computing.  She received the highest honor from LINKS, an organization of professional women who are opening doors for other women around the world.  With Thelma Mothershed Wair (one of the Little Rock Nine), Raye was honored by Alpha Kappa Alpha. Several universities have established scholarships in her honor.  Her story is told in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas. This past May, Raye received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas system, so now there are two doctors in the family!

Raye’s story will soon be added to www.thehistorymakers.com, and PBS has interviewed her citing the obstacles she overcame to excel in her field. This month Raye will be awarded the Silas B. Hunt Legacy Award from the University of Arkansas, the school that denied her desire to study engineering in 1953.

Decades ago when Raye perfected that first Naval Ship Specification System, she changed the way the navy designed ships, but she also impacted the lives of millions, probably billions, of people worldwide and for years to come.  Not long ago Raye’s dentist boasted that his office had a CAD/CAM system that could produce her dental implants in under two hours.  “He didn’t know he was using an iteration of a program that I had debugged decades ago.  Most people wouldn’t want you to know they had dental implants.  I’m proud of mine.  I contributed to them being produced so quickly!” 

If you have the opportunity to hear our neighbor, Dr. Raye Montague, speak at one of her many public engagements, run, don’t walk to hear and meet her!

It was with heartfelt sadness that we learned of Raye’s death on
October 9, 2018, just prior to the publication of this
final installment of her inspiring story. 
We extend our sympathy to Raye’s family and friends.

Cover photo and photo of Dr. David Montague, Riley, and Whitney
by Cunningham Photography of Little Rock, Arkansas.

7 thoughts on “Hidden No Longer!”

  1. So happy to get to read this, Shari. I also got to share it with Cole. What an amazing woman!

    Happy New Year, Kay

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Beautiful story that’s been hidden far too long. What an amazing exchange you must have had with her! Thanks for sharing your story.


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