Raye Montague, a Little Rock native who became a pioneer for minority-group women as a civilian engineer with the U.S. Navy, died Wednesday. She was 83.
Montague died early Wednesday at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, according to Pulaski County Coroner Gerone Hobbs. She died of congestive heart failure, her son David Montague said.
Considered a "hidden figure" for her trailblazing work over a 33-year career, Montague revolutionized the way the Navy designed ships by developing a computer program that created rough drafts of ship specification. That allowed the Navy to cut the time it took to build a ship's draft design from two years to 18 hours and 26 minutes, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a 2012 profile article.
She also fought discrimination at every step of her career.
"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," Montague said in the article. "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."
When a co-worker wouldn't show her how to operate a computer, Montague taught herself. When she was required to work nights to get a promotion, she bought a car and learned to drive on the go. When a supervisor decided that he wouldn't allow her to work nights alone, she took her mother and son to work with her. And when the Navy awarded her the Meritorious Civilian Service Award and someone made a threat on her life, telling her not to receive it, she accepted the award anyway.
"She always made it a point to just try to meet every challenge with a smile," David Montague said.
Eventually Montague's work became widely recognized after the movie Hidden Figures was released in December 2016. The movie told the story of black female mathematicians who weren't credited for their achievements and the impact they made while working for NASA.
Good Morning America aired Montague's story in 2017, and that same year the Navy officially named her its own "hidden figure," acknowledging the prejudice she endured while doing her job to help keep Americans safe, David Montague said.
Montague was born in Little Rock in 1935 and grew up in segregated Arkansas. David Montague said his mother was unable to pursue engineering in college because the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville would not accept black students at the time. So she attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College -- now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff -- and studied business instead.
After graduating in 1956, Montague caught a train to Washington, D.C., determined to find a job related to engineering. She started as a clerk typist with the Navy and worked her way up to become its first female program manager of ships. She also became the Navy's foremost expert on computer-aided design.
"She was involved with STEM before it was sexy," said Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of Women's Foundation Arkansas.
Montague moved home in 2006 to be closer to her son David and his family. She continued pressing for the betterment of others through a program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock aimed at helping parolees return to society, David Montague said, mentoring parolees and speaking at prisons.
Inducted into the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame this year, Montague also remained active with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and attended events with her chapter, Beta Pi Omega.
Chapter president Melanie Hillard said Montague inspired her, and she hopes people will continue to learn about Montague's story and motivate other young women toward high goals.
"She broke that door down for them and allowed them to achieve," Hillard said.
David Montague said that despite her busy work schedule and career goals, his mother, who was divorced, always made sure to take him to Boy Scout meetings and rarely missed a bowling match.
"I don't know how she did it," he said.
"I think that's what she'd want people to know," he added. "That she was a real person."
Metro on 10/11/2018