Arkansas' 'Hidden Figure': Brilliant mathematician helped design wings for jet planes

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Dorothy Hoover Illustration
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Dorothy Hoover Illustration

One day, Dorothy Hoover will be famous.

Maybe it's just the level of fame that means there's a street named after her. Or a school or post office. At the least, Arkansas schoolchildren will learn of Hoover.

That's what Richard Sallee, Janice Russell and Ellen Turner -- three classmates from Hope High School, class of 1968 -- want for Hoover.

The trio think Hoover, a Hope-born, Arkansas-educated mathematician should be a household name.

But who knows? There might be a book about her life to be written. She has gotten close once. And if there's a book; why not a movie, too?

Here's the short reason why: During the '40s and '50s, while working as a "human computer" at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Hoover's theorems, equations and analyses helped give the world jet flight.

Decades later, the best way to meet Hoover is by walking outside and spotting a jet in the sky. Take a close look. Watch the jet gracefully slip through the air. Those sleek, swept-back wings that make jet travel -- and space flight -- possible? That's partly because of Hoover, a woman dead for more than 17 years and forgotten by most for much longer.

Of course, Hoover wasn't solely responsible for jet flight. The history of flight is many-splendored. But somewhere in that jump from the Wright Brothers to Chuck Yeager to the space shuttle is Hoover, the other famous person from Hope.

"We all know who put Hope on the map: Bill Clinton," says Sallee, 67, and an executive who lives now in Nichols Hills, Okla. "She is the hidden figure from Hope.

"What we need is a model. I dare anyone in the state of Arkansas to find me a more perfect model of someone not only doing the academic work and then transferring it over to private industry and having such a big impact on one of the biggest industries the country has ever known, aviation. Sure, she only did wings, but nothing flies without wings."

HIDDEN IN HOPE

The "hidden figure" reference by Sallee is intentional.

Hoover, born Dorothy McFadden to William and Elizabeth "Lizzie" McFadden in Hope on July 1, 1918, is a minor character in the 2016 book Hidden Figures about the "untold story of the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race."

Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden -- four black women who participated in some of NASA's greatest successes. The group were among almost 50 black women who worked as human computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists at Langley from 1943 to 1980.

Hidden Figures was later adapted into a 2016 film that was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

Hoover's not mentioned in the film but pops up about half a dozen times in the book, first being mentioned in the prologue, working for Robert T. Jones in 1946 and "publishing theoretical research on his famed triangle-shaped delta wings in 1951."

Jones, an aerodynamicist and aeronautical engineer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was known as "one of the premier aeronautical engineers of the 20th century."

Jones was the first American aerodynamicist to identify the importance of swept-back wings, a design basic to all of today's high-speed aircraft. (During World War II, the Germans were creating jet airplanes with similar designs, such as the Messerschmitt Me 262.)

Hoover, described by Shetterly as "exceptionally fluent in abstract mathematical concepts and complex equations," worked with Jones in the '40s, around the time Jones was working on his swept-wing design, which reduces the drag imposed on aircraft at supersonic speeds.

A 1938 graduate of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, Hoover earned a master's degree in mathematics from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), teaching school in Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia between colleges.

She started working at Langley in 1943 as a "P-1 mathematician," with an annual salary of $2,000, according to Sallee's research.

In 1946, Jones invited Hoover to become his hand-picked personal "human computer."

Working in Jones' Stability Analysis Division, engineers gave "Hoover long equations defining the relationship between wing shape and aerodynamic performance and instructed her to substitute into them other equations, formulas and variables," Shetterly writes.

"She was key in the history of flight," Sallee says. "That's a big statement. Let's talk about what makes planes fly. You've got to have an engine, but what really makes planes fly is wings.

"[Jones] was right. But to be right, you had to be proven to be right and you needed mathematicians to do your proofs, so Dorothy is doing all of his proofs, personally, for him."

Later in 1946, Jones left Langley for the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., but Hoover stayed at Langley, later publishing two papers about "thin sweptback tapered wings" and supersonic flight with Frank Malvestuto Jr. in early 1951.

Hoover departed Langley in 1952 with the title of aeronautical research scientist, Sallee says.

She returned to Arkansas, where she earned a master's in physics in 1954 from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, according to university records. At that time, Hoover would have been one of fewer than 20 black students on campus.

In May 1954, according to a brief in the Arkansas Gazette, Hoover was a recipient of a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship and she left for the University of Michigan to work on a doctorate in mathematics.

Sallee says Hoover left Michigan in 1956, and moved to Maryland where she worked at the then U.S. Weather Bureau until 1959 before going to the Goddard Space Flight Center, "where she was one of the few female mathematicians."

She had reached the pay grade of GS-13 by 1962, earning about $11,000 per year (about $88,000 in 2017 dollars).

THE UNKNOWN FIGURE

Sallee, Russell and Turner's research into Hoover's life has uncovered much, including -- miraculously -- a letter from Hoover to her mother in May 1938 that Russell found in a sewing drawer bought at an estate sale in Hope about nine years ago. (In the letter, written when Hoover was then Dorothy McFadden and at Arkansas AM&N, she mentions a bookstore bill of 55 cents.)

Peggy Lloyd, former archival manager with the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, has assisted the trio with genealogy research on Hoover's family tree.

Other records have supplied a partial personal history. They know she married Sylvanus Bowe Clarke in 1942, and they had a daughter, Viola Clementine, born in 1947. Sylvanus died early, though, and Viola died at 22.

In 1950, Dorothy married Richard Allen Hoover and they had a son, Ricardo Allen Hoover, who died at 17. The elder Richard also died fairly young.

While living in the Washington area in 1970, Hoover published a book titled A layman looks with love at her church, about the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She visited and kept in touch with family in Arkansas over the years, including a niece, Ozaree Lowe Twillie, who lives in Forrest City. (Another niece, Joanna Lowe Pickett, lives in Palm Coast, Fla.) And Hoover sometimes returned to Hope for Yerger High School reunions (where she graduated in 1934 at the age of 15 as an honor student).

"I did not know her very well, as far as being around her, but the family talked and visited at times," says Twillie, 77, and a former Forrest City alderman. "Other than that, she was always away. She worked for the government and the work was top-secret. That was basically all that she said. She didn't go into detail."

Most of Hoover's life story she took to the grave when she died Feb. 7, 2000, at the age of 81 in a Washington suburb, a death that Lisa Frazier documented in a Washington Post article on May 7, 2000, titled "Searching for Dorothy."

Scraps here and there of Hoover's life remain. Her co-authored papers live on. There's her funeral program. A copy of her book. A 1938 Arkansas AM&N yearbook, Lion, where Hoover was called "one of our most brilliant students, a great literary writer," that Russell bought at a Los Angeles used bookstore.

But Hoover is so not famous right now that there is even a discrepancy over the spelling of her middle name: It's Estheryne in the Lion; Esterine in her funeral program and obituary.

So much is unknown about Hoover, and, as Russell, 66, says, "If we don't have the complete story, we don't have the truth."

"There are still so many gaps to it," says Russell, a schoolteacher at Yerger Middle School in Hope. "I guess one of our big goals ... is to make people so interested in it and intrigued by it, that not only do they know more than they did but that there's this wave of people wanting to know more about this person. What we've discovered is that every time we get a question answered, like 14 more questions pop up. We want people to keep going and going and going."

LOOKING INTO A LIFE

Sallee's research into Hoover's life began earlier this year, after a daughter of his called and told him to watch Hidden Figures. That viewing led to the book, which led to Hoover, which led to this research.

He messaged on Facebook in January, asking other Hope natives if they knew of Hoover. No luck. Later, after a second request, Russell and Sallee realized the McFadden of Russell's letter was the Hoover of Hidden Figures.

Since then, the duo have dug deeper, even meeting with Twillie in Forrest City and recruiting Turner, a 66-year-old Rogers resident who teaches biology at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

"My role in this whole thing is let's get this story out," Turner says. "Facts are one thing; compelling stories are another thing. I think reading Hidden Figures, reading about Dorothy Hoover, reading her story, will inspire other young women -- and men, too. I'm not excluding them, but I know how tough it is, particularly for women of color."

All involved agree: Hoover should be remembered, if for nothing else, as an inspiration to others. For what is possible, even growing up a black woman in Jim Crow Arkansas.

"It was tough for her to do that, especially in that day and time," Twillie says. "It certainly shows great opportunity. If you prepare yourself in education, that's the No. 1 thing -- being prepared because opportunity requires a certain amount of education. Sometimes it requires specific types of education."

Russell adds that Hoover's story is the tale of "a person, a woman, a young black woman in the midst of all those struggles and obstacles, who only saw her own skills, her own dreams and made sure she did whatever would have to happen to make those dreams come true."

When speaking about Hoover, her life and her influence, Sallee and Russell get excited, talking over each other.

"We think this is a story that can't be told enough," Sallee says. "We know we're a little subjective at this point ..."

"We're probably a lot subjective at this point," Russell adds.

"OK."

"But for good reason."

"It's as good as a story -- in a way -- as the Bill Clinton story out of Hope," Sallee says. "It really is. Look at the planes flying today. The world has changed since we've had flight."

So where does this story of Dorothy Hoover end? Perhaps with that book and then the movie or documentary. That's one end of the spectrum. The other end is a little more, well, attainable. Hoover becomes famous to Arkansans; to citizens of Hope and Hempstead County. Maybe there's a school named after her or a street. At the very least, Hoover earns a spot in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

And if that doesn't happen, that's OK, because there are bigger tributes out there. An idea that becomes real lives on forever. Hoover's work has.

"Anytime you see a plane flying; look at that thing," Sallee says. "Look at the wing. And it's got a Dorothy wing on it. ... Maybe one doesn't understand how aeronautical engineering works. But you can understand that this thing is flying. You see this thing flying in the sky, and you see, 'This is Dorothy.'"

Style on 05/14/2017

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While working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,nthe precursor to NASA, Dorothy Hoover published — with Frank Malvestuto Jr. — in March 1951 a paper titled “Supersonic Lift and Pitching Moment of Thin Sweptback Tapered Wings Produced by Constant Vertical Acceleration.”

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Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book, Hidden Figures, first brought attention to the “human computers” who helped America win the space race. Hope’s Dorothy Hoover is a minor figure in the book.

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The paper is a wonder of technical jargon but addresses sweptback wings — a necessity for supersonic flight.

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Part of Dorothy Hoover’s story is told through a May 1938 letter to her mother while Hoover was a student at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College in Pine Bluff. Janice Russell found the letter in a sewing drawer bought at an estate sale in Hope about nine years ago.