Raye’s vision

By Susan L. Peterson

David Montague celebrates that his mother, Raye Montague, is no longer “hidden” and that she finally achieved recognition for her amazing accomplishments working for the U.S. military during the Cold War.

Dr. Raye Montague was formally honored as the U.S. Navy’s “Hidden Figure.” She appeared on “Good Morning America” and other television shows to tell how she created the first computer-generated rough draft of a Navy ship in 1971. It was a job that would typically take two years to design using paper. She accomplished it in under 19 hours.

Essentially, she revolutionized the design process for all naval ships and submarines, some of which are still in operation today.

This image of Raye Montague comes from a poster promoting her as part of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff 2015 STEM lecture Series.

It was only during the last years of her life that her work was truly recognized. Her amazing story is now available in book form thanks to her son, David Montague, and Paige Bowers, co-authors of “OVERNIGHT CODE: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering” (Lawrence Hill Books, 2021). It is the story of a single woman’s struggles and ultimate success in a system with deeply ingrained racial, gender, and societal barriers.

Raye decided at an early age that she wanted to become an engineer. But in 1952, when she tried to enter an engineering program, minorities were not accepted at the University of Arkansas. Instead, she earned a Bachelor of Science in business from the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal School, now known as University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Immediately after receiving her degree in 1956, she moved to Washington, D.C., and took an entry-level position as clerk typist working for the male-dominated U.S. Navy. She continued her education, taking night courses in computer programming, which led to a job as a digital computer systems operator at the Naval Ship Engineering Center. She soon became the Navy’s first female program manager of ships, holding a civilian rank of captain.

Her career in the Navy spanned 34 years, and in 1972 she was presented with the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, their third-highest honorary award.

When her son, David, took a position with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Raye followed, returning to her native city in 2006.

For years, people told Raye she should write her story. It wasn’t until she received national recognition in 2017 and urging from a publisher that she relented. And David wanted to help.

Recalling stories for the book became a bonding experience for David and his mother. They reminisced about days when his mother, a single parent, would sometimes take him to work with her. He remembered accompanying her to conferences around the country. She taught him programming when he was only 4 years old. Despite her demanding workload and continual studies, she always found time to take him to Scouts and ball practice.

When she was invited to appear on the Harry Connick Jr. Show in 2017, David traveled with her to New York by train since a health condition prevented her from flying. While they ate in the train’s dining car, his mother recollected those early trips when she was not allowed to step a foot into the area.

David initially thought of writing the book on his own, but he accepted the publisher’s suggestion of using the experience of noted author Paige Bowers to assist him. David shifted his responsibilities to researching records, compiling data, and lining up interviews. Following his mother’s death, he downloaded her phone contacts to arrange interviews and follow additional story leads.

Sadly, Raye Montague died in October 2018, and she did not see her story published. But while she was in hospice, David promised her the book would be completed. It was released in January 2021.

In addition to her intellectual capabilities, Raye was generous in helping and encouraging others. After she returned to Arkansas, she served as a mentor and motivational speaker, even working with prison inmates in a re-entry program. David still encounters people who pursued their degrees because of her.

Raye Montague’s legacy of empowering others lives on. Scholarships at three universities are now presented in her name. And another tribute came in March 2020 in the form of a children’s book, “The Girl With a Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague,” by Julia Finley Mosca (author) and Daniel Rieley (illustrator). It is a story read in many classrooms throughout the country with the aim of encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers.

It was Raye’s own mother who instilled the notion that she could be or do anything you want through education. Today, David R. Montague, Ph.D., continues this family tradition of encouraging and finding educational opportunities for others in his role as interim associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at UALR. He is also a tenured full professor of criminal justice.

David and his wife, Whitney, have been married 22 years. They live in Little Rock with their 18-year-old son, Mace. David enjoys speaking to groups about his mother and says she would be happy knowing her story encourages others to pursue their dreams.