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Friday, September 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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UW engineering grad wasn’t a ‘girl’ among men in ’51

Luella Armstrong holds a 1951 Seattle Times article about her  in her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash., earlier this month. (Sy Bean / Sy Bean Seattle Times)
Luella Armstrong holds a 1951 Seattle Times article about her in her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash., earlier this month. (Sy Bean / Sy Bean Seattle Times)
By Erik Lacitis Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It’s a bit late – 65 years late – but the Seattle Times is happy to clarify a story the paper ran on Sunday, June 10, 1951.

For all those years the story has gnawed at Luella Armstrong, now 86. It concerned that year’s graduation coverage at the University of Washington.

Back in those days, stories like that began on Page 1 and continued to big spreads inside that included the name of every graduating senior.

There was a special story about Armstrong inside.

The headline was, “One girl in air engineers graduates with 174 men.”

You can pretty well guess what’s gnawed at Armstrong for more than six decades during her accomplished career in aeronautical engineering with Boeing.

In one paragraph, the story asked Armstrong if her fellow students hit on her:

“With all those men, had Miss Armstrong trouble keeping requests for dates in hand? ‘No,’ she answered, blushing and changing the subject.”

Those were different times.

In that story, Armstrong herself says, “I was the lone girl,” but if you are being interviewed and that term is used, and those are the times, that’s how you answer, she says.

Armstrong, of Lake Forest Park – personal computer in room, laptop in the living room – can tell you about those times.

She remembers taking a class that involved working at the foundry shop and producing castings. She wore jeans there. After she was done at the shop, she switched to a skirt.

“No woman was seen on campus in jeans or pants,” Armstrong said.

She remembers one professor, upon first seeing a woman in his class, telling her, “You can stay, but I’ll barely pass you.”

Still, she remembers most professors treated her “with respect and encouragement,” she said, and “outnumbered those who didn’t want me in their classes.”

The battles continue

Armstrong was among the trailblazers for today’s young women – who still are in the minority in most science fields and in many cases are still fighting for acceptance.

According to the National Science Foundation, in 1975, women earned only 2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

Four decades later, in 2014, that had improved to 20 percent.

Which means female engineers are still very much in the minority and fighting their own current battles.

In 2015, Isis Wenger, a software engineer, appeared in a recruitment ad for her company, OneLogIn of San Francisco.

She was attacked online as basically being too good-looking and not “remotely plausible” for what “a female software engineer looks like.”

That started other female engineers posting their photos with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

Colleen Layman, of Janesville, Wisconsin, president of the Society of Women Engineers, said girls start losing interest early in science classes because the classes are geared for boys.

With Lego, for example, she said, “Boys want to build something and then knock it down.”

Girls, she said, “want to build something that to their minds benefits society, a home for pets or something. It’s the different ways a male mind thinks and a female mind thinks.”

Teacher suggested engineering

Armstrong was the daughter of a diesel mechanic dad and a stay-at-home mom. She graduated in 1947 from Overlake High School (now Bellevue High), with a 3.98 GPA. She was class valedictorian.

She got all A’s, except for a B in a cooking class. “I just wasn’t that interested in it.”

Back then, if you were a studious high school girl, you were supposed to go into teaching or nursing, Armstrong said.

She was uninterested in those careers. What she liked was math and science.

“I had a wonderful, wonderful math teacher. His name was Frank Odle. He said, ‘Why don’t you think about engineering?’ It was quite something in 1947 for a teacher to suggest that,” Armstrong said.

She wasn’t the first woman to attend the engineering school, but certainly among the first.

After her first day of classes, she was rattled and told her family, “I’m not going back.” Her mother said, “Oh, yes, you will.”

As for having to fend off the male students, it turned out most were much older. They were returning servicemen on the GI Bill.

“Some had families. I was very fortunate. They treated me like I was a sister,” she says.

Armstrong loved her classes. Six months before graduating, she was part of a UW team contracted to do wind-tunnel testing. She went right onto a full-time job at Boeing’s Plant 2 on East Marginal Way South.

She worked on projects that engineers would readily understand, but not the rest of us. Structural dynamics. Airplane landing loads. Flutter analysis.

Then she met Bill Mudge at a party. He worked in direction and production for a local TV station. They married in 1955 and Armstrong became pregnant the next year.

In those times, she says, if you were a woman working at Boeing and got pregnant, “You had to leave in the first month or two.”

“I just ignored it,” she says, “and continued to work until it was obvious.”

The couple would have two sons and a daughter. Armstrong stayed at home because that’s what moms of her generation did. The couple divorced in 1976.

“I kind of lost myself in that marriage,” Armstrong said. “I put everybody else first.”

It was time to get back to work, but Boeing wasn’t hiring then. Armstrong found a job setting up billing for a home-nursing company.

Then, at a party, she mentioned to a woman there that her background was as an aeronautical engineer. The woman happened to be the executive secretary for the head of Boeing’s computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing division.

He called her. She was hired.

“Through the years I’ve had a lot of guardian angels,” Armstrong says.

Back to her favorite work

It wasn’t easy in 1979 rejoining the world of engineering and its new computer stuff.

“Just calm down, you can do it,” the young engineers would tell their 49-year-old colleague. And she did.

Armstrong has displayed in her home a “Certificate of Outstanding Performance” given to her by Boeing for her leadership in the 747/767 airplane programs.

At times she was a sort of bridge between old-school and new-school engineering.

“I was very patient with young engineers. Everything they do is on a computer. They had no concept of 3-D. I would explain to them that you have to visualize,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong didn’t want to retire in 1995, but she says Boeing was offering an incredible package. She took it.

It wasn’t Armstrong who contacted this paper about that 1951 story. It was one of her grandsons, Ryan Anderson, 21.

“She’s my biggest hero,” he says. Anderson is graduating from Central Washington University with a degree in musical theater.

Through the years, Anderson remembers his grandma mentioning that newspaper article and the “girl” reference.

Anderson asked the Seattle Times that the record be set straight about that story from 65 years ago. So here it is.

As Luella Armstrong says about being an aeronautics-engineering grad, “I was a woman. I wasn’t a girl.”

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