‘Hidden figure’ book lauded; Little Rock native Montague 1st to design ship by computer

Raye Montague
Raye Montague

The story of Navy ship design trailblazer and "hidden figure" Raye Montague as told by her son, David, and co-author Paige Bowers has won the top honor for biography from the Georgia Writers Association.

David Montague, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Bowers, an Atlanta-area resident, won a Georgia Author of the Year award for their book "Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering," published last year.

"It makes me happy, because the book idea was something that my mother wanted," Montague said. "She had started the book when she was alive, and she wanted it to be a legacy for inspiring other people."

Raye Montague, a Black woman born in Little Rock who in 1971 became the first person to design a naval ship on a computer program, gained wider acclaim as a "hidden figure" in the years before her death in 2018.

The term has gained wide usage in describing women like Montague who played critical roles in important science and engineering efforts while facing discrimination because of their race and gender.

Recent efforts at showcasing their work include the movie "Hidden Figures" -- based on a 2016 book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly -- which focused on Black women who worked for NASA in the mid-20th century.

"I took her to see the movie," Montague said, describing his mother as someone deeply involved in community outreach but also often quiet about her own story, which he said included painful instances of being overlooked during her career.

About the term "hidden figure," "I think she really thought it was a fantastic way of describing any type of person that has played some type of pivotal role in their area but not given the kind of credit for what they were doing," Montague said.

"She said the reality of that term is that there's so many other figures out there who have not had their moment in the light. We just don't know about them," Montague said.

Raye Montague, born in 1935, died in 2018 with David Montague vowing to her that the book project would be finished.

"I think one of the things it helped me do was help me deal with the grieving process," said Montague, who recalled his early life while being raised by a single mother as filled with plenty of time in his mom's office on weekend workdays as well as job-related travel.

His mother began as a typist before landing a role as digital computer systems operator, then worked nights to gain a promotion as a civilian worker, as described in a 2021 brief write-up of her life published by the Navy.

The work led to her trailblazing efforts as a designer, which involved creating what's known as a draft design for a ship using a computer program that she helped develop.

In all, Montague had a 34-year career in which she received several promotions and honors, including the Navy's Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972 and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award in 1978.

"I knew she kept getting awards. I didn't really understand all of the details," Montague said.

He recalled how he gradually came to understand the importance of his mother's work by the time he reached high-school age, and how he learned lessons while observing her dealing with people and problems as a supervisor.

"I learned the lessons that she gave me. She would give the same lessons to other people, too, and I think that's really special," Montague said.

He said his mother in her career felt hurt at being passed over for an opportunity never previously offered to a Black woman, and that she also felt it wrong that she didn't get to be on hand for the unveiling or launching of the early ships created based on her designs.

But "she never let it make her bitter," Montague said.

"That was something that I think was one of the biggest takeaways from a lot of folks. In spite of all the negative things, she still really -- and it came through in the book -- really her goal was just to make the world a better place," Montague said.

He praised Bowers, his co-author, as "very meticulous" and a "fantastic storyteller."

In a statement released by the university, Bowers, a news and features writer, said: "At the end of the day, Raye Montague told simply wonderful stories. I honestly believe that all David and I did was weave those threads from her together with research and original interviews we did with other people from her life."

David Cady, a judge for the award, praised the book as showing "that perseverance and passion are truly the keys to success in fulfilling your lifelong ambitions."

Montague said: "We don't need awards to feel like something is successful. Certainly, just being able to have the book come to life, that was the real reward. You know, it was a labor of love."

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