Celebrating the Life of Raye Montague

Raye Montague

Raye Montague

During World War II, when Raye Montague was 7 and growing up in Arkansas, her grandfather took her to see a traveling exhibit of a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina. She was enchanted.

“I looked through the periscope and saw all these dials and mechanisms,” she recalled years later. “And I said to the guy, ‘What do you have to know to do this?’”

His response: “Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that.”

The clear implication was that as a Black girl she could never become an engineer, let alone have anything to do with such a vessel. She would go on to prove him very wrong. The girl who faced racism and sexism in the segregated South, where she rode in the back of the bus and was denied entry to a college engineering program because she was black, became an internationally registered professional engineer and shattered the glass ceiling at the Navy when she became the first female program manager of ships. Montague earned the civilian equivalent of the rank of captain.

In a breakthrough achievement, she also revolutionized the way the Navy designed ships and submarines using a computer program she developed in the early 1970s. It would have normally taken two years to produce a rough design of a ship on paper, but during the heat of the Vietnam War Ms. Montague was given one month to design the specifications for a frigate. She did it in 18 hours and 26 minutes.

At the height of her career, she was briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff every month and teaching at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Many of her ship designs are still in use.

“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,” Ms. Montague told The Democrat-Gazette.

The project that would be her signal achievement seemed to be an impossible task when it was assigned — to lay out, step by step, how a Naval ship might be designed using a computer. That had never been done before. Her boss (who didn’t like her, she said) gave her six months to complete the project, not telling her that his department had been trying to do it for years without success. He told her she could work nights only if she had someone else with her, and then made it clear that he wouldn’t pay any of her colleagues’ overtime. She thought that his demand was frivolous and that he intended her to fail. Not to be deterred, Ms. Montague brought along her mother and her 3-year-old son. Finally impressed by her determination, her boss gave her extra staff. She met the deadline and presented him with her computer-generated designs for a ship.

President Richard M. Nixon, who wanted the Navy to be able to produce ships at a faster pace, heard about her accomplishment and sent word for her to design a rough draft of an actual ship. They gave her all the staff she needed and an unlimited budget, her son said. It led to her designing the first Navy ship with a computer program, in less than 19 hours.

Raye Montague died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 10 at a hospital in Little Rock, AR, her son, David R. Montague, said. She was 83.

“She was busy opening doors for people and inspiring them,” her son said. “Her message was always the same: ‘Don’t let people put obstacles in front of you, but understand you also have to put in the work.’ She didn’t have any patience for people who weren’t willing to go the extra mile.”