College's First Female Graduate Enjoyed Interesting Career

Tuesday, Feb 04, 2020

As the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed through the auditorium for the College of Engineering’s commencement ceremony in January 1967, Penny Lee Carlisle became the first and only woman to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from Arlington State College. 

She was six months pregnant with her first-born son and named him Andrew Scott Carlisle (ASC) as a nod to her alma mater. Arlington State College became The University of Texas at Arlington that spring, and Margaret Kantz became the second woman to graduate from the College and the first woman to graduate from UTA in May 1967.

Penny’s father was a Navy pilot and she grew up on Naval bases from Cuba to Hawaii, where she enjoyed surfing. In her senior year at Flour Bluff High School in Flour Bluff, Texas, a career theme was required. She researched aerospace engineers, discovered only 2% were women and chose that career path. Her father’s last tour of duty was the Dallas Naval Air Station in Grand Prairie, so she enrolled at Arlington State College because it was close to home.

“Arlington was a nice little town and the college was small and intimate. There were not many engineering students and our teachers – Don Seath, Jack Fairchild, Carl Files and Joseph Dalley – loved us,” Penny recalled. In 1966 there were 2,000 engineering students, of which 15 were women.

While attending college, the only calculator available was her trusty slide rule. She audited a computer course after graduation before beginning her engineering career because her degree plan did not call for computer classes.

Penny pursued interests in more than just her courses. She was one of the first workers at Six Flags over Texas during its first season in the summer of 1967; she captained the women’s rifle team for two years at ASC; and she and Kantz helped start UTA’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, which was the society’s first chapter in Texas. She still says that SWE is a wonderful society and source of support for women engineers.

Penny also worked one summer at Texas Instruments soldering launch components for the Scout Missile, which she would later work on at LTV in Grand Prairie.

Her first job after graduation was with LTV. One of her first projects was working on the A7 aircraft, which was flown by several men who graduated with her and then signed up to fight and fly in the Vietnam War.

Due to a downturn in the demand for engineers, Penny and her first husband, Charles, landed in St. Charles, Mo., in 1969, where he worked on flight simulators at McDonnell Douglas Electronics and their second child, Jana Cerise, was born. 

“One day I received a call from an engineer at McDonnell Douglas Astronautics across the river in St. Louis, saying he had heard I knew all about subsonic aircraft and would I like to come to work on the space shuttle proposal,” Penny said. “It was a great job working on the transonic and subsonic aerodynamic algorithm development for the space shuttle, but unfortunately McDonnell Douglas did not win the contract.”

Later, she went to work for the St. Charles County coroner writing up coroner reports. She also worked with the Young Republicans and helped to elect Kit Bond as the first Republican governor of Missouri since the Civil War. As a member of the League of Woman Voters, she developed an energy saving plan and presented it to Governor Bond’s Energy Committee.

A few years later, Penny and her family moved back to Arlington where Charles continued working on flight simulators. Later that year, Penny received a call from UTA asking her to teach engineering drawing, so she returned to her alma mater as a college professor. She also taught engineering courses and computer design graphics at Tarrant County Community College.

Penny kept that schedule for two years. She “traded her husband for a younger model,” Daniel Fox, and then returned to work at LTV in 1985 to work on the Army Tactical Missile proposal, then on the SCOUT Launcher program and ERINT and PAC-3 missile programs. She also worked on several other proposal efforts, most notably the FADDS Heavy, also known as the Liberty Air Defense System. This was a collaboration with the French, whose system and documentation were in French. It was an extremely ambitious proposal with short schedules and tight budgets. Classified computing was an issue, as the schedule did not allow for the traditional approach of setting up a classified computing room, but Penny devised a solution – a room within a room – that met all the requirements. She had it up and running in less than two months. Despite only being asked to bid on the program by the Army to make the proposal competitive, the LTV team worked hard, learned some French and almost won the program.

Overcoming daunting obstacles, persevering through impossible schedules, and getting the job done on tiny budgets were hallmarks of Penny’s career. She has always had an infectious, can-do attitude.

Penny has had a full and wonderful life working in the aerospace industry. Other rewarding life interests were owning and operating several commercial fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico with Daniel from 1998 to 2004 and owning a motorcycle trike which she drove to work when weather permitted and rode to Sturgis in South Dakota for several years.

She retired in 2010 while working on the PAC-3 Hit-to-Kill missile after LTV had evolved into Lockheed Martin Corporation. Penny’s career had many twists and turns and she looks back on it fondly.

“When I first went to work at LTV in 1967, I was told that I did not need to work in the wind tunnels as they were dirty places. When I returned 15 years later, I was running different programs in the High-Speed Wind Tunnel. The change that has occurred for women engineers since the 1960s is amazing,” she said.