She faced tough odds and came out on top
“I had a good childhood,” says Nancy Weaver. Some would say it was idyllic: brought up in a pleasant neighborhood in Minneapolis. Dad a corporate exec with General Mills, Mom at home taking care of their four kids. A close family, three girls and a boy. Summers spent camping, swimming and bicycling. “I was a really good student,” she admits: among the top two or three percent in her high school class of 550, good enough in math to tutor some of her classmates. She was a girl scout, quiet and reserved. She had a part-time job with the Humane Society and thought she might become a veterinarian for her career. How much more idyllic could it get?
Her views matured after she entered the University of Denver in Colorado (known locally as DU). “I wanted to save the world,” she says. That was in the 1970s, when our country was embroiled in the unpopular Vietnam War and the world, then as now, needed saving. Her dad had encouraged in her a love of football, and she became a lifelong fan of the Denver Broncos. She also took up flag football on the DU women’s team, The Party Sisters. Her position? Defensive end. “I loved to sack the quarterbacks,” she confesses, revealing a certain spunk that might not have shown up in high school. It showed up again in her working career.
At DU she majored in psychology and sociology, and though she still wanted to save the world, she was realistic enough to know that wouldn’t happen. As she puts it, “For a few years I worked in a stream of poorly paid, thankless jobs, and to quote an old Bonnie Raitt song, I crossed the line for the dollar sign.” She took some classes at business school to learn computer skills and was able, in 1984, to land a job with Martin Marietta, a large aerospace company with operations around the country. The corporation “didn’t necessarily match my values or passions,” she says. “I was a liberal, socially conscious peacenik joining a conservative defense company.” She started in the clerical pool, but with her smarts and willingness to work hard, she was given a position in engineering, where advancement would be much more likely.
But she had two strikes against her: She was a woman in a man’s industry, and she was a “soft science” major in a company where engineers and techs reigned supreme. The culture she was entering was competitive and fast-paced, with no holds barred. “Kindness wasn’t a company value at the time,” she remembers.
She took her share of bruises. Her first boss berated her loudly in their in-office meetings, once bringing her to the point of tears. She survived the tongue-lashing, and she took her dad’s advice to “work harder, work better.” She had thought about leaving the company, but didn’t. She came to understand that most men she dealt with didn’t know what to do with her, so they treated her like a wife or daughter or secretary. “On one occasion I was at the secretary’s desk to write her a note, and an engineer mistook me for the secretary. In those early days, things like that happened more than once.”
And as she moved up the ranks, she didn’t escape the twin evils of sexism and bias against those who were not engineers. In one instance she was the leadoff presenter at an important design review that would involve a large audience of systems engineers and executives over a period of several days. “I nailed it,” she says. She flawlessly took the audience through the system’s achievements and capabilities within the stringent requirements of the program. She sat down to a round of applause and took a front seat, her talk having set the stage for the remainder of the conference. The next morning, as the attendees and presenters gathered before the second day’s meeting, a senior advisor to the company approached her. She thought he might have a question or comment on her part of the presentation. He leaned in and said conspiratorially, “I’ve been wanting to tell you … you have really, really nice legs!”
She might have wanted to sack him like an unsuspecting quarterback, but she was able to brush off that affront to her dignity and to persist in working ever harder. “I had to be better and work harder to achieve what a man in my position earned. I didn’t have an engineering degree, but I was always analytical,” she says, “I could bring order out of chaos, and I was good at managing other people, which wasn’t a skill that many engineers seemed to have.”
Nancy is quick to point out that not every man was unenlightened. “I worked easily with many men. Many of my bosses were men, and most supported my success,” she says. Indeed they did. She became a systems engineer, then a senior systems engineer, then a senior manager at what was then Lockheed-Martin. “As the only female on a small, young, hand-picked leadership team, I helped to design, build, integrate, test, and ultimately produce a rocket on the Atlas 5 program that still launches satellites and spacecraft today. This was where I honed my skills as a systems engineer, an innovator, a leader, a mentor. This was how I built my self-confidence. I used my people skills to help the people I worked with.” She beat the odds because she never gave up.
Nancy Weaver worked for five years of her 33-year career with Lockheed-Martin on NASA’s human space flight program that followed the Apollo and space shuttle programs. “I was always working above my work grade, and finally my grade and compensation caught up with me,” she says. She traveled for work to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, attended the Atlas 5 launch at Cape Canaveral, and worked with astronauts. At home she supported her family (son Gus and daughter Bonnie) and cared for her husband Bill, who had serious health problems, all the while taking on new assignments at her company. “I came to realize that my frenzied work life wasn’t about the job, it was about me. I was relentless,” she admits.
Nancy and Bill moved to Southwest Florida in 2016. They wanted a place on the water, and they wanted a small boat. They got both in 2017, but Bill was lost to his illness that year. That’s also the year Nancy retired. She has come to terms with herself. “I am happy that I can enjoy the rest of my life and have the ability and resources to craft a future full of the things I couldn’t or wouldn’t do when I was working,” she says. That includes working on a historical novel, biking, yoga, taking walks, doing volunteer work as Treasurer for her church and being with “a wacky group of friends in my writing group.”
Sounds almost, well, idyllic.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.