Gladys West didn’t realize the impact her work on GPS would have on the world, but there’s no mistaking the way her life has changed since her contributions have come into the spotlight.
A year ago, The Free Lance–Star published a story about West’s calculations in developing the Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigation tool that’s become an integral part of everyday technology.
Afterward, information about the petite and ever-humble 88-year-old King George County woman went viral.
News organizations and the military, state museums and churches, schools and civic groups started calling, wanting to give her awards, make her grand marshal of parades and praise her through presentations.
West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, recognized on the Senate floor of the General Assembly in Richmond and heralded as one of the 100 influential and inspirational women of 2018 by BBC News in London. She’s been featured in the Department of Defense’s media services, the Association for Women in Science’s magazine and a Spanish digital newspaper, El Informante.
“Her story has resonated nationally and internationally,” said Gwen James, a fellow sister in the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority who discovered West’s work in late 2017.
West had written a short bio for a sorority event and mentioned, in one line, that she was part of the team at the Navy base in Dahglren that developed GPS in the 1950s and 1960s.
James and West had known each other for years, and James was amazed by that significant detail. James has continued to be astonished as she’s attended ceremonies with her sorority sister.
“She still seems surprised that so many find her worth honoring,” James said. “What that says to me is that Dr. West, like so many others of her generation—during a time when segregation was still a life for many—did what she had to do to take care of her family. To have others take credit for your work and not acknowledge your contributions was just the way of life at that time.”
Even though the spotlight is still shining—West is being honored this month by the Library of Virginia and featured in an interview on the long-running “700 Club” television program—she appreciates the attention, but is not totally comfortable in the glare.
Consider her actions at last month’s 13th annual community celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. She was called to the stage at James Monroe High School and given a Hidden Figure award.
“I had no idea that the work I was doing would affect the world this way and to this extent,” she told the audience, adding that, “Many years ago, I had committed myself to being the best I could be.”
At the end of the program, organizer Xavier Richardson called the honorees, along with anyone involved with the civil rights movement, to the front. Using her cane, West made it up the stage steps again and tried to hide in the back.
“Oh, no, Mrs. West,” Richardson said, pulling her out of the shadows and situating her, front and center.
“She’s always like that,” said her husband, Ira. “She doesn’t want to put herself in front of the crowd.”
‘A LOT OF TOP BRASS’
The Wests’ daughter, Carolyn Oglesby, lives in Locust Grove and has become her mother’s press agent. She vets requests for interviews and appearances, careful not to overtire her mother, whose medical history includes a stroke, quadruple heart bypass and breast cancer.
Oglesby has gained a new understanding of the work done by both her parents at what’s now the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren. Ira West already was working there in 1956 when Gladys Mae Brown was hired as a mathematician, and the two were among four African–Americans on staff.
Oglesby said those who have called, from near and far, with questions and requests have been “extremely nice and very accommodating.” When the Wests couldn’t make it to the Air Force Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Colorado Springs last summer, because they don’t travel that far, Air Force officials brought the ceremony closer to her.
“She had a three-star general pushing her around the Pentagon in a wheelchair,” Ira West said. “There was a lot of top brass there.”
Lt. Gen. David Thompson, the Air Force Space Command vice commander and pusher of Gladys West’s wheelchair, explained how vital GPS technologies are, not just in domestic travel, but in assisting with military missions and even international financial institutions by providing date and time audit trails for money transfers.
Thompson also discussed Newton’s laws of motion regarding the Earth, sun, moon and planets, said James, who attended the event.
“Although my understanding of this is minimal, he explained that there are hundreds of variables to work out, and that Dr. West did all of these calculations by hand without the use of computers we have today,” James said.
In October, the Wests were grand marshals of the King George Fall Festival one Saturday, then Gladys West enjoyed the same title at the homecoming parade of her alma mater, Virginia State University in Petersburg, the next weekend.
“It was indeed a pleasure to welcome her back to campus,” said Charmica Epps, VSU’s director of alumni relations. “Dr. West, who we recognize as a ‘VSU Hidden Figure,’ has made a significant impact within the technology world.”
A poster featuring Gladys West and other “Strong Men & Women in Virginia History for 2019” will be sent to every public, private and home school in the state, said Catherine Fitzgerald Wyatt, education and outreach manager with the Library of Virginia.
The library, along with Dominion Energy, sponsors the annual recognition of African–American achievers. The Rev. Lawrence Davies of Fredericksburg also is being honored.
In recent years, the program has tried to take a closer look at Virginia women involved with STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
“We thought of them as an exception, but as people have begun looking, they realize there were many women like that in a bunch of STEM fields, going all the way back to the Second World War and before,” Wyatt said.
INTELLIGENCE AND STRENGTH
Marvin Jackson, a Maryland television producer, is putting together a documentary about “Women of Color in STEM.” Gladys West’s story “will be one of the big features” in the film, which will include those who’ve become doctors, studied marine biology or tracked gorillas for National Geographic.
As he heard about obstacles women faced, he was so impressed that Gladys West realized at a young age that education would get her out of the tobacco fields and factories of her Dinwiddie County home. She earned a scholarship to VSU, then later struck out for Dahlgren, where she didn’t know a soul—and couldn’t find the place on a map.
She didn’t have the benefit of GPS or a smartphone.
“She was so confident that she could do it,” Jackson said. “That’s the thing that stands out to me just as much as her intelligence—her strength.”
Gladys West joked that maybe she should have been more of a “scaredy cat” when her work at Dahlgren evolved into collecting data from satellites that orbited the earth.
“I guess I didn’t know that I was paving the way as much as I was,” she said shyly.
Plus, she was too focused on getting the calculations right.
The former mathematician, who earned a doctorate after retiring in 1998, wants to write her memoirs, and all the public appearances have slowed the process. From an early age, she’s always set her goals—and met them—and she feels like she’s got to get them done, soon.
She mentioned the memoirs to Jackson, the film producer, and asked if he could help with the writing.
“How could I say no?” he said. “I have just fallen in love with her.”