Growing up in King George County, Carolyn West Oglesby ’83 didn’t really think about what her parents did all day at work. She just knew that Gladys and Ira West were civilian mathematicians at the naval base at Dahlgren, where the family lived and she and her two brothers attended school.
It wasn’t until long after Oglesby had earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Mary Washington, established her own career, and completed her master’s and doctoral degrees that she learned the true significance of her mother’s work. Gladys West’s efforts with the military, using satellites to map the world, were foundational to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The life and work of Gladys West, and her contributions to what would eventually become an essential everyday navigational tool, are the focus of the William B. Crawley Great Lives lecture at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Dodd Auditorium of George Washington Hall.
Main speaker Karen Sherry, curator at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, will present biographical information about West, and Oglesby will be part of a panel answering questions about her mother. Additional panelists are Marvin Jackson, who worked with West to write her autobiography, It Began With a Dream; and Alan Dean, a UMW adjunct instructor, Dahlgren retiree and former colleague of Ira West.
Oglesby said that while her parents are unable to attend the lecture in person, both are pleased by Gladys West’s inclusion in the Great Lives series. It’s just the latest example of public appreciation for a career that, despite its importance and lasting impact, took place mostly out of the spotlight.
Gladys Brown grew up in a farming family in Dinwiddie, Virginia, and as valedictorian of her segregated high school earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College, now Virginia State University. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics before starting her career at Dahlgren in 1956.
There, she became one of just two women and four African Americans on staff at the time. One of her co-workers was Ira West, who became her husband.
Doing calculations at first by hand and later using successive generations of computers, Gladys West worked on teams mapping and measuring the Earth from space, devising programs and algorithms to analyze satellite data accurately. After West’s retirement in the late 1990s, she also earned a doctorate.
Even as GPS devices became commonplace, West’s contributions were unheralded until she wrote a short bio for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, of which both she and Oglesby are members. An AKA sorority sister, Gwen James, made the connection between West’s work for the military and the ubiquitous modern-day civilian technology. James contacted local reporter Cathy Dyson, and the resulting 2018 article in The Free Lance-Star opened the floodgates, Oglesby said.
Gladys West has since received worldwide accolades for her career including a resolution by the Virginia State Senate, honors from the military, inclusion in museum exhibits, and now the Great Lives lecture.
But Oglesby said what matters most to her mother is the chance to interact with youngsters in elementary and middle school in hopes of inspiring them to try out science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.
“Her real goal,” Oglesby said, “is to make sure people know they can do what they want to do. Especially kids … they’re just delightful.”
The 20th season of UMW’s Great Lives series is free and open to the public. Lectures take place at 7:30 p.m. on select Tuesdays and Thursdays through March 28, 2023, at Dodd Auditorium in George Washington Hall on campus.