Every alumna who comes back to Smith for Reunion has a story to tell. In this series alumnae reflect on the experiences that have shaped their lives since graduation.
House: Tyler, then Lawrence for three years
Hometown then and now: Washington, DC
Career: Scientist, researcher, educator
How I came to Smith: My homeroom and mathematics teacher at Dunbar High School was Mary Cromwell, sister of Dr. Otelia Cromwell, who attended Smith [and graduated in 1900]. It was a tradition to send students from Dunbar on to Ivy League schools. When I was offered a place at Smith, tuition and board for one year were $1,100. My aunt and mother contributed each $500, and my high school gave me a $100 scholarship for each of my four years at Smith. After that first year, I was awarded scholarships and fellowships for all the years I studied, first at Smith and later at Yale.
First impressions: My aunt had a car, and my cousin came from Detroit to drive my mother, my aunt, my sister, and me up to Northampton. We arrived late at night. I was the only African American in my class, but I was never made to feel uncomfortable in the least. Everyone was very friendly. We had to have a “posture picture” when we entered, and when I saw myself I thought, my god, that girl is as thin as a rail. I’ve got to get a little weight on me.
Early ambitions: I thought I’d study French. I wanted to become a high school teacher. But after I was introduced to French literature my first year, I changed my mind. I took two years of astronomy with Miss Marjorie Williams and loved it, but I thought, what kind of a career would that be? I imagined I’d sit in some isolated observatory somewhere, and I didn’t want that kind of life. If I had known that the space program was right around the corner, I definitely would have chosen to major in astronomy. As it was, I chose the field of mathematics, which I had always loved.
If I had it to do over again: We were asked by President Davis to cut down on travel to support the war effort, so I didn’t stay for graduation and disinvited my family. I was trying to be a good citizen and follow his request, though not everyone else did. In retrospect, I’m sorry. I would have liked to have attended the ceremony, and for my family to have seen me graduate from Smith.
Life after Smith: I went to Yale and received my master’s in 1946 and my PhD in mathematics in 1949. Summers I worked for the National Bureau of Standards, using—can you imagine?—old-fashioned non-electric calculators. I was invited to join IBM in 1956 to research the application of computers to science, a field that interested me very much. This was back in the days when computers were huge and generated so much heat that they had to be air-conditioned. I wrote computer programs for the IBM 650 using the Symbolic Optimal Assembly Program (SOAP). When NASA awarded IBM a contract to write and maintain computer programs for the US space program, I returned to Washington as part of a team of scientists and mathematicians who computed and produced tracking systems for satellites, including NASA’s Vanguard and Mercury projects. Later, I worked with North American Aviation (now part of Boeing) on the Apollo shuttle. It was an exciting time. The defense and space programs were booming, and jobs were plentiful. Later, I taught at the University of Texas at Tyler and then at Texas College, a traditionally black school.
The world today: I have followed the health-care debate with great interest. I believe in taking care of people. If we call ourselves a Christian nation—and we do—then it’s up to us to help others who are less fortunate. Why should I have a privilege that others don’t?
Fall ’10 SAQ