Robert B. Simpson: Amazing Grace

October 12, 2013 

Hurrying down a Pentagon corridor years ago, I almost bumped into a diminutive, white-haired lady wearing a Navy officer's uniform with the sleeve braid of a captain. She looked neither left nor right, appearing to be in deep thought. When I reached my office, I announced to a colleague that I had just seen the oldest Navy captain in the world. That may well have been the case. She was approximately 72 then, I would later learn. Although she and I were the same rank, she was the same age as my mother.

Among her Navy colleagues, she was known as "Amazing Grace," and for good reason. Grace Murray Hopper earned degrees in mathematics and physics, held a Ph.D. from Yale, and taught math at Vassar for 12 years until, in 1942, she enlisted in the Navy, having to argue past age limits and get an exemption because she was 15 pounds below the minimum weight. Graduating, typically, first in her officer training class, she was commissioned and spent the next several years working in a new field, computers. Denied integration into the Regular Navy, as she requested, at the end of the war, she remained in the Navy Reserve. And continued to pioneer in the development of computer language, programming, and various areas important to both military and civilian advances.

Odd though it may seem, this genius in mathematics and physics married a college English instructor. Somehow, despite such widely differing aptitudes, the marriage lasted for 15 years. Upon its dissolution, Grace retained her married name but remained single for the rest of her life.

If I had personal heroes, Grace Hopper might well be one. I have written about her briefly before. I do so again because, in an age of "what's in it for me?" her life stands out for her persistent desire to serve her country, even when it repeatedly rebuffed her attempts to do so. During stints on active duty, she developed programs and initiated processes that dramatically improved the use of computers throughout the Department of Defense, not just the Navy. Out of uniform, she was a prize catch for universities and for major corporations of the new digital age, entities eager to employ the genius who had developed so many fundamental standards for future massive digitalization. And then when called, she dropped her civilian pursuits and donned the uniform again.

Forced by regulations to retire from the U.S. Navy Reserve at age 60, then-Commander Hopper was recalled to active duty the following year for a brief period. The brief period stretched to four years, after which she retired again, in 1971, only to be recalled again the following year. This time the period of active duty would stretch to 14 years, during which time she was promoted to captain and then, finally, to admiral. The brilliant child with a penchant for disassembling the family alarm clocks, who had accompanied her surveyor grandfather at his work and learned about the technical details of surveying, and whose mother imparted a love of mathematics, must have found this last promotion especially satisfying. For her own personal hero was her great-grandfather, Admiral Alexander Russell, U.S. Navy.

The woman who was known by insiders as "The Grandmother of the Computer Age" and, less reverently, as "the little old lady who talks to computers," must have found great satisfaction in the exercise of her immense intelligence and training, not just succeeding, but pioneering in a field so opaque to most ordinary mortals. But she must have found it equally satisfying to reach the top levels of the naval service she loved, even when it sometimes tended to reject that love.

Admiral Hopper, then the oldest serving officer in the U.S. Navy, retired from Navy service for good in 1986. She was just four months shy of 80 years old. The ceremony was held aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, the Navy's oldest ship. Later another ship, the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Hopper, would be named for her. She certainly deserved that and any other honor that a grateful nation could bestow upon this lady known as "Amazing Grace."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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