Mary B. McCarthy, F.SWE, died peacefully in her sleep Nov. 18, 2019, in Campbell, California. A member of the Santa Clara Valley Section, she spearheaded a number of innovative outreach (formerly referred to as career guidance) programs on the section and Society levels. Most notable were Tinker Toys Technology, in conjunction with Girl Scouts of the USA, a national series with 4-H clubs, and a program with the American Association of University Women.
McCarthy’s dedication to outreach was a direct result of her own experiences. Growing up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, opportunities were limited. While teachers recognized her abilities in math and science, it cost 25 cents to join the math club at school, and that was 25 cents she did not have. In an oral history interview, she recalled, “I think back, and I think, oh, my gosh, why didn’t I scrape it up? But I didn’t really know what that meant … I didn’t know what engineering was … And like today … if girls don’t know … then they don’t know what’s possible, where they can go and what they can do.”
The United States entered World War II while McCarthy was attending a junior college. Along with many of her classmates, she joined the Civil Service and spent the war years repairing damaged planes and testing aviation communications equipment in San Antonio and Hawaii. Following the war, she married and moved to San Francisco, spending many years as a mother and homemaker. According to the demands of her husband’s military career, the family made several moves around the country.
In 1968, at the age of 45, McCarthy enrolled in the City College of San Francisco, transferring to the University of California, Berkeley in 1973 to pursue engineering. Undaunted by the resistance she sometimes experienced due to her age and sex — and taking to heart the encouragement she also received from some of her professors — she completed her degrees in electrical engineering and materials science in 1976. She graduated the same year the SWE collegiate section at U.C. Berkeley was founded.
Beginning her engineering career in her 50s, McCarthy was hired by Lockheed as a reliability engineer to work on parts control and standardization. She quipped that she had gone from “kitcheneering” to engineering, and found her engineering work to be thoroughly satisfying and “fun.” Developing a distinguished career at Lockheed, she worked on military and aerospace projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope. She became a senior reliability engineer specialist and the chairperson of the parts control board.
McCarthy served SWE in leadership positions on the section and Society levels, including terms on the board of directors as vice president of student services, and vice president of special services. She was the Society-level career guidance chair, coordinator of the first Resnik Challenger Medal selection, and coordinated Achievement Award selections as part of the awards committee. Taking a job transfer to Austin, Texas, she revitalized the SWE Southwest Texas Section just prior to its being deactivated in1984, serving as president, before returning to the Bay Area.
Also a member of Toastmasters International, McCarthy made many presentations on women in engineering. One especially stood out: “Successful Programs to Encourage Young Women to Study Engineering,” given in 1991 at the Ninth International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists. Held in Warwick, England, the gathering was composed of women from around the world, who responded enthusiastically to the presentation and applauded SWE’s efforts.
McCarthy is survived by her daughter, Mary Ann Morales; her sister, Ella Dean George; and multiple relatives and friends. She was preceded in death by her parents; siblings; and her husband, Joseph M. McCarthy, who died in 1983 while she was in the early stages of her career. SWE members who attended the funeral service report that, honoring the pride and satisfaction McCarthy derived from her engineering education and career, the family distributed copies of her 2006 oral history interview, part of the Profiles of SWE Pioneers Oral History Project.
SWE Archives; Personal Correspondence; Enid News & Eagle, Dec. 19, 2019
“In Memoriam: Mary B. McCarthy, F.SWE 1923 – 2019” was written by Anne M. Perusek, Director of Editorial & Publications. This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of SWE Magazine.