LITTLE ROCK — Raye Montague’s mother once explained the facts of her life this way: “You’re female, you’re black and you’re going to have a segregated school education — so you’re going to have three strikes against you. But you can do anything you want to do and you can be anything you want to be.”
Montague, 77, grew up in segregated Arkansas, attending all-black schools in Pine Bluff and riding in the back of the bus. She graduated from high school in 1956, a year after Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up a bus seat to a white person and a year before Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to Little Rock Central High School.
Her mother, Flossie Graves, whose light skin, flaming red hair and green eyes revealed a mixed-race genealogy, had given Montague the gifts of confidence and a positive outlook. Armed with those qualities, a keen intellect and the willingness to work as hard as or harder than others, Montague adopted a strategy for turning obstacles into challenges.
Over 33 years as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, she became an internationally registered professional engineer who revived a moribund computer prototype that would deliver the first computer-generated draft for a Navy ship ever, the FFG-7 frigate. In a career spanning the development and implementation of computer technology — from the massive UNIVAC mainframe system to today’s sleek PCs — she succeeded as a woman in a male-dominated field, surpassing those who would have held her back, and maneuvering around every obstacle thrown in her path.
“I had to run circles around people, but when they found out I really knew what I was talking about they came to respect me,” she says. “I worked long hours and traveled for the job because I couldn’t say I wanted the same wages as the guys if I couldn’t. I had to do all the same things, within reason, that they did.”
Sitting in the sun room of the west Little Rock home she shares with son David, daughter-in-law Whitney and granddaughter Riley, Montague lists in a measured tone a few career highlights that others might find interesting. At times, she sounds incredulous.
“Even though she’s always been anxious to open doors for people, she’s never thought that people really want to know about her,” David Montague says. “She’s not one to toot her own horn. She’ll just sit back and say, ‘I worked for the Navy.’”
STRATEGY AND INNOVATION
Montague is credited with revolutionizing the way the Navy’s ships are designed by developing a computer program that creates rough drafts of ship specifications. She was the first woman to become program manager of ships for the Naval Sea Systems Command Information Systems Improvement program, where her position was the civilian equivalent of a naval captain. In 1972, she received the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award. In 1978, she was the first woman engineer to receive the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award.
Montague regularly appeared before the Joint Chiefs of Staff to explain computerrelated ship design and construction. She also taught classes in engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
She was instrumental in creating initial designs for the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the Navy’s first landing craft helicopter assault ship. Montague’s last project for the Navy was the Seawolf nuclear submarine.” Raye will catch you by surprise,” says Deborah Frazier of the Little Rock chapter of The Links, a volunteer organization for black professional women. Montague was a member of the Maryland chapter, then joined the Little Rock group after moving to the city in 2006. “Looking at Raye, you may not suspect what’s behind this little grayhaired lady. But I remember my first conversation with her. As she started telling me about her work with the Navy, I was so blown away. She had to be a strategic thinker about everything in her career path.”
At almost every step in her career, Montague says, she encountered attitudes and acts of discrimination based on her sex or race, often both. One supervisor responded to her request for a promotion by telling her she had the “right name, but the wrong sex.”
“Discrimination was rampant,” says former co-worker William Toler. “At that time, we all operated under segregated and discriminating conditions but if you succumbed to that, you’d never get anywhere.” Toler worked with Montague at the David Taylor Model Basin (now the David Taylor Navy Ships Research and Development Center), in Carderock, Md. The facility, then as well as now, is one of the Navy’s top labs for testing ship designs by creating models and working out flaws before building a ship to full scale.
Toler says Montague was widely respected for her expertise and knowledge.
“The story was that she had come in as a low-level employee. She asked the person operating the computer to teach her how to operate it,” he recalls. “He said, ‘No, the next thing you’ll do is want my job.’ So she just stood over him and watched him work. Then one day he called in sick. There was nobody else to operate the computer. Her boss asked her if she could do it and she said she could. When the guy came back to work, Raye had his job.”
ENGINEERING A CAREER
Montague says people often wonder how a girl from an inland state became interested in ship building. Ships caught her fancy during World War II, after the U.S. Navy captured a German “midget” submarine, a vessel typically operated by one or two people. The submarine became part of a traveling exhibit that came to Little Rock.
“My grandfather took me downtown to see that submarine and I was able to go down a little ladder into that sub. It was like a tin can. That was my first introduction to ships,” she says. “You just never know what inspires a person.”
Years later, as a student at Merritt High School in Pine Bluff, she told her teachers she planned to be an engineer. “They didn’t know what I meant. They thought I wanted to drive a train.” But she knew what she wanted — to be a machine engineer who builds ships. “I took all the science and math courses; those were always easy. And long-range planning was always one of my strengths.”
Since no colleges in Arkansas that offered engineering degrees admitted blacks, she enrolled in Arkansas AM&N (Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal School), the traditionally black college that became the University of Pine Bluff, and earned a bachelor of science degree in business. In 1956, the day after graduation, she left Arkansas for Washington, where she began applying for jobs. The Navy was the first to call.
“They looked at my resume and said, ‘Oh, you have a bachelor of science.’ They didn’t care what it was in, but just that it was a bachelor of science degree. They said, ‘You’ll know all about computers.’ Well, it was 1956 and people didn’t have computers, but I said something like, ‘Of course I do.’”
Montague got the job and started work at the David Taylor Model Basin as a digital computer systems operator.
“I worked with guys who had graduated from Yale and Harvard with engineering degrees and people who had worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atom bomb. They all had bachelor of science degrees so they thought I knew what they did. I didn’t, but they taught me about the circuitry of computers.”
After a year, she asked for a promotion. Her boss told her she wasn’t eligible for one unless she could work at night. He might have thought that would be the end of the discussion: She had no car, didn’t know how to drive, in fact, and no buses ran that late.
“I said, ‘You mean if I could work at night, I could be promoted?’” Montague says. “He said ‘yes.’ So I went out and bought a 1949 Pontiac for $375 and had the salesman drive it to my house.” After buying the car, she told her boss she would work the midnight shift.
She still didn’t know how to drive, but she learned on the road. She left her house near Washington at 10 p.m. and crept through the city to arrive at her office in Maryland by midnight. In the morning, she stayed late and worked on the computers with the day shift employees. “They thought I was so helpful,” she says, laughing, because “I’d wait until 9:30 or 10 in the morning until traffic let up to drive home” — she was still on that learning curve — “I’d make it home about noon.”
Later, she got a Maryland driver’s license. Showing it off to her co-workers, her boss discovered the secret about her nightly drives to work. He asked who had taught her how to drive. “I said, ‘I taught myself.’ Well, I was promoted.”
Since moving to Little Rock in 2006, Montague has been a motivational speaker. During her talk, “Turning Obstacles Into Challenging Situations,” she shares her philosophy with children of all ages. Her presentation brings home the point that “obstacles” block objectives, while “challenging situations” are a “difficulty that provokes an alternate approach.”
The ship design process she revolutionized arose from an obstacle she approached as a challenge. About 1970, she began working on a computer program called CASDAC (Computer-Aided Ship Design and Construction) at the Naval Ship Engineering Center. Upon meeting her supervisor there, she learned “he had a problem with me. I hate to say this, but he was racist. So he decided ... to get rid of me.”
The supervisor assigned her a project with a six-month deadline without telling her that the department had pursued the project for years without success. It involved a ship specification system, one she learned was being developed by a company in New York. On her initiative, she went to New York, checked into a hotel and showed up for work every day at that firm. After learning the program, she took it back to the Navy, tore down their computer system and installed the program.
Having time to tear down and rebuild the computer required her to work at night, which gave her boss another opportunity to throw up a barrier — she couldn’t work nights unless someone was with her. None of her co-workers would do so because they weren’t paid overtime.
“So I brought my mom and son in with me. David was 3 years old. I put him over in a corner and taught him how to punch cards.” At the time, cards were punched with binary codes that used to give computers instructions. “When he’d get sleepy, I’d put him on a desk and cover him with a blanket.”
After a week, her manager asked why she brought her mother and son to work. Montague explained that the only way she could meet the sixmonth deadline was to work at night, so if she was prohibited from working alone, and no staff cooperated, she’d lean on family.
“He said, ‘Are you that determined to meet the deadline?’ I said I was. Well, the next day I came in and I had a staff from 4 p.m. to midnight. I pulled it off and met the deadline.”
A couple of months later, “the brass” told her that President Richard Nixon wanted to see a rough design of a ship and fast. Could she do it?
Montague assembled her staff on a Saturday morning, fired up the computer and ran it all day. At midnight, she went home to shower and rest. “I was getting ready for bed and the phone rang.” She thought the program had crashed and the project was ruined.
But when she arrived at the office, her staff was “standing with their hands against the walls like little children who had been caught doing something.” She walked to the printer that recorded each computer function and pulled out the paper report. “It said ‘the end.’” In 18 hours and 26 minutes, Montague’s program had created specifications for a ship design that previously would have taken two years.
For the project, she received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award. The same year, she was nominated by the Secretary of the Navy for the Federal Woman of the Year Award.
Montague retired in 1990. Today, she’s busy mentoring young people, serving on the curriculum committee for LifeQuest’s Adventures in Learning Program and playing bridge. She’s also active in her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, as well as The Links.
Referring to the idea that there are three stages in a person’s life — birth to college, career and raising children, and retirement — Montague says she expects more.
“There will be a phase four for me where I may need a little help but I’m still active. Then there will be a phase five. That’s what I call my afterglow, where I can reflect on all the beautiful memories I have and the people’s lives I’ve touched.”
“She’s dealt with some amazing things with grace,” David Montague says. “As a kid, I never really understood that she was dealing with so many obstacles and was able to deal with them in effective ways.
“She just always tried to accomplish her mission, to do it with as much grace as she could. Her attitude was that things have to be different for other people. But she wasn’t always aware of the greater significance of her actions. She just had goals she wanted to achieve.” SELF PORTRAIT
Raye Jean Montague
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH Jan. 21, 1935, Little Rock I’M MOST PROUD OF My son, David R. Montague, who’s a criminal justice professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THAT I’m really rather shy. ADVICE I GIVE YOUNG PEOPLE IS Never think you cannot do something simply because someone tells you that you can’t. WHEN I WANT TO RELAX I play bridge or do crossword puzzles. MY COMPUTER IS A Dell. ONE THING I WON’T EAT IS liver. THE LAST BOOK I READ WAS Slavery by Another Name by Doug Blackmon. ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP Positive.