Best black engineer wasn't picked easily Hundreds: A panel of 20 experts pored over scores of nominations to select the nation's top black engineer and other top technicians and scientists.

February 17, 1997|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Arthur E. Johnson isn't a surprising recipient of the prestigious Black Engineer of the Year award for 1997.

As president of Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, he's in charge of 8,000 employees who develop, sell and deliver information solutions to the Defense Department, civilian federal agencies and other customers.

Johnson, 49, has 27 years of experience in military and government technology as exotic as mine-hunting submarine sonars and as commonplace as mechanical mail sorters.

But his selection for the national award, given Saturday in Baltimore, was hardly a no-brainer.

A panel of 20 academic, technical and personnel specialists holed up for several days in Baltimore's Omni Inner Harbor Hotel to select Johnson and 29 other African-American technologists honored Saturday.

They plowed through hundreds of detailed nominations from across the country. They read endorsements from chief executive officers, corporate chairmen, and top professors. They consulted one another on details of technology, military culture, and corporate finance.

And eventually, they honored the best from what award organizers say is an under-recognized, often invisible segment of American industry.

"This is an award for people whose excellence is really unquestionable but who would go unrecognized if something like this doesn't bring them to public attention," said Garland Thompson, editorial director of Baltimore-based U.S. Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine.

Engineers generally don't get much limelight. They're behind the scenes, writing code, testing tolerances, making specifications. Or supervising people doing those things.

Black engineers get even less attention. That's due in part to their relatively small, 3.7 percent share of the American engineering profession. But it's also caused, Thompson said, by lingering racism and corporate resistance to diversity.

Recent racial incidents at Texaco and Avis, he said, show "that there are large pockets of strong resistance to the idea of full participation in our work force."

Examples of engineers deserving recognition, he said, include Patricia S. Cowlings, a NASA scientist and recipient of this year's award for outstanding technical contribution in government, and Dixie T. Garr, a Texas Instruments engineer receiving the award for professional achievement in industry.

Cowlings was the first American woman to receive scientist-astronaut training, and her work on astronaut motion sickness was used not only by NASA but by the Russians, Thompson said. Garr supervises 800 engineers at Texas Instruments. "She's one of the people who helped make American manufacturing strong again," Thompson said.

Saturday's awards highlighted the accomplishments of today's engineers and showed the potential of tomorrow's. A key part of the 7,000-person conference was career seminars and networking for black engineering students.

Selecting the winners took three days, said Marsha Jews, chief operating officer of Career Communications Group, a Baltimore firm coordinating the conference. Two hundred nominations were culled, each with a fat stack of endorsements, technical data and resumes.

"People were taking boxes of files to their room to read," she said.

The selection committee was made up of people from academia, government and industry. This is the 11th annual awards session. "Year to year, a lot of the players on the selection panel stay the same, but we always have some new additions," Thompson said. "You have to have some institutional memory."

Award winners

The 1997 awardees:

Black Engineer of the Year: Arthur E. Johnson, president, Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, McLean, Va.

President's Awards: Wilmer Cooksey Jr., plant manager, General Motors Corp., Bowling Green, Ky.; Mark Dean, vice president, IBM Corp., Austin, Texas.

Dean's Award: Herbert McGrew Jr., director, engineering and manufacturing, 3M United Kingdom, U.K.

Professional achievement, government: Capt. Winston E. Scott, astronaut, NASA, Houston.

Professional achievement, industry: Dixie Tyran Garr, director of software engineering, Texas Instruments, Plano, Texas; W. T. Greer Jr., vice president and director of advanced technologies, Motorola SPS, Tempe, Ariz.

Outstanding technical contribution, government: Patricia S. Cowlings, research scientist, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Outstanding technical contribution, industry: Marc C. Desruisseaux, senior staff engineer, Motorola Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

William R. Wiley Student Leadership: Vernecia S. McKay, Tuskegee University, Ala.

Education: Lesia L. Crumpton, assistant professor, Mississippi State University.

Entrepreneur: Earl Scott, president; and Andrew P. Woods III, chief executive officer, Dynatech International Systems, Columbia.

Community Service: Dana A. Swann, principal engineer, ARINC, Annapolis.

Career Achievement, government: Col. Otis Williams, chief of staff, Army Corps of Engineers, Washington.

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