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Fall 1995

Stinson Reflects on Her Engineering Career

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What's it like to spend an afternoon reminiscing with a North Carolina State University legend . . . namely, Katharine Stinson, the University's first woman engineering graduate?

It's to hear a bit of history that has brought distinction to the NCSU College of Engineering and also continuing support for University missions.

Now retired from a 32-year career as an aeronautical engineer, Katharine Stinson is living in Pinehurst, N.C., close enough to visit her Alma Mater frequently for various university and alumni occasions. And close enough for one to visit her for a chat about her memories of N.C. State, her engineering career, and her efforts in promoting engineering education.

Soft-spoken with sparkling eyes, she talks with good humor of her struggles to get a "technical" education and of her endearment to airplanes, flying, and aeronautics. She emphasizes her personal goal to inform women there are exciting opportunities available to them in the world of engineering.

She begins by telling me that one way she felt she could help women seeking engineering careers was to help establish, through the N.C. Engineering Foundation, a scholarship fund in the NCSU School of Engineering open to women across the nation.

"When I was in college, engineering scholarships for women were not available," she says with regret.

She is honored that the recipients of the NCSU scholarship program are know as "Katharine Stinson Scholars."

Her road to engineering began with a turning point in her life -- when she met Amelia Earhart. She reflects on this meeting:

"I was 15 years old, working with airplanes and learning to fly, when I met my idol at the Raleigh airport and told her I wanted to be a pilot. Miss Earhart replied 'Don't become a pilot, become an engineer.' And I heeded her advice."

From that moment her education goals were set, she says. But when she sought admission in 1936 into N.C. State's School of Engineering she met strong rejection: women were not allowed! She remarks:

"But after talking at length with the dean of engineering, they finally said I could come in as a junior if I completed 48 semester hours elsewhere. I wasn't going to give up, so I enrolled in Meredith College where I earned those 48 hours in one year. So N.C. State had to take me and earlier than expected."

Thus in 1941, Katharine Stinson received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with an aeronautical option, becoming the first woman to earn an engineering degree at N.C. State. That same year, she joined the Civil Aeronautics Administration (now the Federal Aviation Administration) as their first woman aeronautical engineer. She spent the next 32 years with the agency making vital contributions to aircraft safety and becoming the Technical Assistant to the Division Chief with the responsibility of principal engineering advisor on new and complex technical developments.

"It was my duty to make sure that aircraft designs proposed by manufacturers met or surpassed mandatory safety standards," she says.

We first met in 1971 when she was bestowed the "Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award" during campus ceremonies. Her citation states:

"Her versatile background as a well-qualified pilot, her knowledge of engine and airframe maintenance, plus her proficiency as an aeronautical engineer has made this outstanding woman engineer an invaluable asset to this nation."

It has been my privilege over the past two decades to keep abreast of Katharine Stinson's continuing activities in the interest of engineering education. Her tremendous vitality has kept her at the forefront in promoting the progress of engineering and technology. Her return visits to the campus have provided support for many programs - speaking to engineering societies, serving on alumni committees, and supporting the Engineering Foundation.

In her retirement, Katharine Stinson enjoys her bright, modern home on a golf course. She plays the game frequently when she's not traveling here or abroad, for pleasure or for speaking commitments. During my visit I spied a secluded wall in a corner den that modestly displays her many awards - from bronze plaques to engraved certificates. Among them is her recognition in 1988 as "Aerospace Pioneer of the Year" by the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, of which she is an active member. Citations also abound for her work and her official capacities in the Society of Women Engineers, the Soroptimist Club, the Ninety-Nines (a national organization of women pilots), and the NCSU Alumni Association.

It was indeed an afternoon of warm recollections of times before and after I met this remarkable woman engineer. For a fact, her deeds are legendary.

As I reluctantly prepared to take my leave, a last-minute browse through a journal lying on a side table, the spring 1994 issue of U.S. Woman Engineer, revealed an article entitled "Aerospace Pioneer: Katharine Stinson." The closing paragraph aptly sums up her contributions to society:

"She is a shining example of a woman who shed the mold, left inhibitions on the farm in North Carolina, and pioneered in her own right. So for 32 years in the FAA and many more in her other activities, Katharine Stinson prepared the way for others to follow. A woman in a traditional man's job, doing as well as or better than many - a role model for young women to see and admire - a true pioneer!"

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