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When the Chips Fall, Be Ready & Take Charge – Navy’s “Hidden Figure” Advises Audience

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications | April 19, 2017

DAHLGREN, Va. – It was the first time Raye Montague traveled by train since 1956 when she left Little Rock, Ark., to look for a job in Washington D.C.

The Navy’s first female engineer was on her way to speak at a Women’s History Month event sponsored by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), April 4.  

As the train headed towards Virginia, Montague reflected on her life and career experiences as well as words of wisdom she could pass on to those gathered at the Naval Support Facility (base) theater to celebrate an observance emphasizing the 2017 national theme: “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business”.

Montague didn’t know where she would work – let alone become a trailblazer in labor, business, government, military, or academia – when she arrived in the nation’s capital 61 years ago.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” Montague told the military, government civilian, and defense contractor audience. “What am I going to do? What type of job am I going to be able to get? How am I going to make a living? All of a sudden, I’m on my own.”

At the time, the Navy’s first female program manager of ships knew she would become an engineer. The fact that she did not have an engineering degree would not stop her dream from becoming reality.

“I made that decision when I was seven years old,” said Montague, recounting a pivotal moment in her life: “The United States captured a German min-submarine off the Carolinas and brought it to downtown Little Rock, and my grandfather took me down to see it. I saw the dials and mechanisms and looked through the periscope.”

Montague asked the tour guide what she needs to know to operate a submarine, and recalled his response: “Oh, you’d have to be an engineer but you don’t ever have to worry about that.”

She was undaunted and overcame objections, challenges, and glass ceilings ever since.

“Well, I didn’t realize that I had been insulted because of my gender and my race,” said Montague who asked her mother to find out what was required to be an engineer and, “it was math and science and thinking outside of the box.”

Montague’s mother as well as her eighth grade teacher encouraged her to dream big and think out of the box.

“Aim for the stars, at the very worst, you’ll land on the moon,” said Montague as she repeated her teacher’s advice.

Montague’s high school required four years of home economics for girls but she wanted to build things and design things in shop class.

“Girls couldn’t go to shop,” said Montague, but her mother “did battle” with school administrators, “and convinced them that if I could pass the written exam in home economics without attending the classes, I could take shop. What they didn’t realize was that I had a photographic memory.”

Montague aced the home economics classes and took four years of high school shop classes.

“After I graduated high school, I wanted to go to engineering school,” she said, however, “the only school in the state of Arkansas that offered a degree in engineering was the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and they did not accept minorities. The only minorities were in law school.”

The Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College accepted Montague who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in business at the historically black college and university. “In the meantime, I was in the debate teams in HS and in college so I could hold my own in speaking,” she said.

One day after graduation, she took the train to Washington D.C. with plans to step in somewhere to learn more about engineering and take charge.

The Navy hired her as a GS-3 entry level clerk-typist but she listened and learned.

“I’ve got this photographic memory, and I could hold two conversations on the surface and listen to a third and I would learn while listening,” said Montague. “I’m sure that most of you have similar talents – you just got to know how to use it and apply it.”

She listened to conversations of engineers who graduated from Harvard and Yale universities and specialists who worked on the Manhattan project developing the atom bomb.

Montague’s Navy bosses assumed she was on the leading edge of technology because she had a bachelor of science degree, asking her to confirm that she knows all about their new computer. 

“I had never seen a computer, and Arkansas didn’t have a computer then,” said Montague. “I said, ‘of course I do,’ so they said get to work.”

Montague got to work and learned how to operate the UNIVersal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) 1, currently on display in the Smithsonian Museum.

“It was a 1,000 word mercury tank 2 memory with vacuum tubes,” said Montague, regarding the tanks of mercury used for UNIVAC  1’s memory. “We didn’t have higher level languages at all. We had to program it in machine language and you upgraded the computer in Excess-3 binary code. You know I didn’t learn that in Arkansas.”

Although she never earned an engineering degree, Montague picked up engineering skills on the job while attending computer programming school at night to the point of professional expertise and experience where she became a registered professional engineer in the United States and Canada.  

During her keynote speech, Montague – who was the Program Manager of Ships (PMS-309) for the Naval Sea Systems Command Information Systems Improvement Program – paused to counsel an audience attentive to every word.

“Don’t say this is not a part of my job,” advised Montague. “Learn everybody’s job, okay? And when chips fall, you step in. When the doors of opportunity open, you can’t say let me go back and get my bags, you’ve got to be ready to step in – you step in and take charge.”

Montague – known as the Navy’s hidden figure who is no longer hidden – continued to sprinkle advice to the audience as she shared memories that she relished and reflected upon during her train ride to be the event’s keynote speaker.

“I thought about all of things that happened to me in my career – all the doors that I had opened and glass ceilings that I broke,” she recounted. “I didn’t realize that I was breaking glass ceilings back then. I was just doing what had to be done. One of the keys to advancing is to always go to personnel and look at the job description above your level and you will find that the terminology is something that you can describe doing in the same terms. That’s important.”

The things that happened to Montague throughout her career were no accident. When the chips fell, she stepped in and took charge.

A big chip fell when Navy admirals asked Montague if she could design a naval ship in one month using a system she developed. In response, she took charge and made history as the first person to design a U.S. Navy warship – the USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7), lead ship of the Oliver Hazard Perry class of guided-missile frigates – in less than 19 hours.

“You’ve also got to think dialogue,” Montague advised the audience. “In order to advance, you’ve got to think and anticipate what people are going to say to you. You can’t say, ‘I wish I thought about this, or I wish I said that.’ Think and anticipate. For example, once I completed the ship design, DoD (Department of Defense) set up what they called a manufacturer technology advisory group. I was the Navy representative and worked with white men. I was always the only woman in the group. Of course, everybody thought I was the secretary rather than realizing I was in charge. They would come in and talk to the guys (Montague’s team of engineers) who would say – ‘no, she’s in charge’.”

At that point, Montague – the female African American engineer who revolutionized the design process for all naval ships and submarines – took charge.