This year for Ada Lovelace Day, I want to share my Aunt Nancy with you. A year ago on this day, I was preparing to head to Huntsville, AL to attend her memorial service. I had been unable to attend her husband’s memorial earlier in the year and I wasn’t going to miss saying good bye to her.
It started, as it always does in the South, with all of us gathering for BBQ on the outskirts of Huntsville. Like all good BBQ joints, Greenbrier Restaurant is not fancy. However, it does serve great BBQ. What was even better was reconnecting with extended family, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades.
The reason is that my Aunt Nancy is my mother’s aunt. We spent so much of my time growing-up in Navy towns that when it came time to see family, we barely had time to see grandparents and great-grandparents, much less the extended family. We primarily saw aunts, uncles, and cousins at family events.
Like Aunt Nancy’s memorial.
So as everyone entered Greenbrier Restaurant, there were introductions, “My how you’ve grown!” and people calling me by my father’s name at least once. We all shared the highlights of the last 20 years except those at the “grandkids” table. They all caught up on the last few months.
I sat with the older generation for a few reasons. The first was because as the oldest cousin of two oldest cousins, I wanted to sit with the other Gen Xers. The second was because I wanted to hear more stories.
But we’ll get to some of those. The largest outcome was planning our trip to the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center the next day.
I Didn’t Know Huntsville Had Tall Buildings
That was my thought as we drove into town that day. What I was seeing rising out of the horizon was a Saturn V rocket. Those are big. When you see it on its side in Cape Canaveral, you don’t fully appreciate how tall it is. You definitely think it is big but you have trouble picturing its true height until you see it standing upright.
And Aunt Nancy’s husband, John, was on the engineering team that built the guidance system for the rocket.
An Auburn engineer, he had moved up to Huntsville in 1960 as NASA was just getting started. He moved there with Nancy who left behind her engineering job to move and focus on the family that was just beginning with my cousin Ann.
I got to here many stories as we wandered around the Rocket Center with Nancy and John’s kids and grandkids. I heard about Nancy and John meeting in Auburn while she was the lone woman in Auburn’s Electrical Engineering program. John was attracted to her because, he claims, she understood quadratic equations. As apocryphal as that is, John definitely appreciated how smart Nancy was. This was a good thing because she was not one to hide her capabilities.
They got married in 1952 and after college, Nancy got a job as an draftsman. I’m intentionally calling the role draftsman. This is because at one point, she was discussing becoming a senior draftsman and she was told it wasn’t going to happen.
She could not, and would not, be promoted.
The reason? She was a woman. Of course, they all had faith in her ability. However, they knew that the men would never take direction from her. You see, they didn’t want to promote her into a position where she would be setup to fail. It wasn’t her, it was them. The other draftsmen.
An Example To Us All
Nancy went on to have a more hands-on engineering position elsewhere but in 1960, when John had the opportunity to join NASA, leaving behind her “career” wasn’t as hard of a choice as it should have been.
Nancy went on to have a long and wonderful life. She has four kids including three daughters. Two are working as engineers today, one for Boeing and the other for Lockheed Martin. They are all amazing women and their mother, as well as the rest of the family, is proud of what they have accomplished in their lives. What they have achieved is, in no small part, due to the encouragement, love, and support from Aunt Nancy who set the example for them and our entire family, including my mom and Aunt Jackie.
Of course she did much more. She and John dove into amateur radio. In fact, when I mentioned this to an old neighbor, her recalled talking to her. They both kept learning, taking classes at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH). She instilled her love of reading and for continuing education that is clearly evident among her kids and grandkids.
She Is Missed
My Aunt Nancy is missed. This past August, I went to visit her oldest daughter in Seattle. There she showed my Aunt Nancy’s drafting kit from Auburn, back when it was still officially Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API). It was an amazing thing to hold in my hands. While in Seattle, the two of us went through Aunt Nancy’s genealogy research. Her research was thorough and well documented. Here attention to detail from her engineering days served her well throughout life.
Every chance I get, I remind my kids about their Aunt Nancy and Uncle John. I want to remind them that math, engineering, and the other STEM fields are not only an option for them, it is part of their heritage. They don’t have to follow in those footsteps, but opting-out needs to be by their choice.
And while the world my Aunt Nancy is much more forgiving for women technologists, it isn’t fixed yet. We have a pipeline of women entering different STEM fields. We need to fix the world in which we work so that that the Nancy’s of this world don’t abandon the field because it is just easier to do something else.