It’s a Great Life to introduce GPS technology pioneer Gladys West

Growing up in King George’s 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 Dahlgren Naval Base, where the family lived and where she and her two brothers attended school.

Mary Washington alumna Carolyn West Oglesby, center, and parents Ira and Gladys West attend an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority ceremony.

It wasn’t until Oglesby 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 meaning of her mother’s work. Gladys West’s efforts with the military using satellites to map the world were fundamental to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The life and work of Gladys West and her contributions to what would eventually become a major everyday navigational tool are the focus of the William B. Crawley Great Lives Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 2, 2023 ., in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium.

Keynote speaker Karen Sherry, a 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 include Marvin Jackson, who worked with West to write her autobiography, It all started with a dream; and Alan Dean, UMW assistant instructor, Dahlgren retiree and former colleague of Ira West.

Oglesby said that although her parents were unable to attend the lecture in person, they were both pleased to have Gladys West included in the Great Lives series. It’s just the latest example of a public appraisal of a career that, despite its importance and lasting impact, has largely taken place out of the limelight.

Gladys Brown grew up in a farming family in Dinwiddie, Virginia, and as valedictorian at her segregated high school, earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College, now Virginia State University. She earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics before starting her career at Dahlgren in 1956.

There, she became one of only two women and four African-Americans on staff at the time. One of her colleagues was Ira West, who became her husband.

Gladys West is pictured at a ceremony where she was honored.

Doing calculations first by hand and later using successive generations of computers, Gladys West worked on teams that mapped and measured the Earth from space, developing programs and algorithms for precise analysis of satellite data. After West’s retirement in the late 1990s, she also pursued a Ph.D.

Even as GPS devices became commonplace, West’s contributions were not announced until she wrote a short biography for the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, of which she and Oglesby were both members. Gwen James, a sorority sister known as AKA, made the connection between West’s work for the military and the ubiquitous modern civilian technology. James contacted local reporter Kathy Dyson, and the resulting 2018 article in The Free Lance-Star opened doors, Oglesby said.

Since then, Gladys West has received worldwide accolades for her career, including a Virginia State Senate resolution, Army honors, inclusion in museum exhibits, and now the Great Lives Lecture.

But Oglesby said what means the most to her mother is the opportunity to interact with elementary and middle school youth in hopes of inspiring them to try science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Her real goal,” Oglesby said, “is to make sure people know they can do what they want. Especially the kids… they’re just adorable.”

The 20th season of UMW’s Great Lives series is free and open to the public. Lectures are held at 7:30 p.m. on select Tuesdays and Thursdays through March 28, 2023 in Dodd Auditorium in George Washington Hall on campus.

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