“If I’m going to be in this world I might as well do something useful.” – Nancy Fitzroy

Niskayuna resident, Dr.Nancy Deloye Fitzroy, received a lifetime achievement award from RPI. Photo by Gazette Photographer Marc SchultzNiskayuna resident, Dr.Nancy Deloye Fitzroy, received a lifetime achievement award from RPI. Photo by Gazette Photographer Marc Schultz

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s highest engineering honor has 19 recipients, 18 of whom are men. Earlier this month, RPI broke its y-chromosome streak by awarding the Davies Medal to Nancy Fitzroy, who graduated from the institute in 1949.
Fitzroy, 86, was also the first woman president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and one of the earliest female helicopter pilots in the world. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Oh, did you want to be first at everything?’ ” Fitzroy said. “It never occurred to me that I was first.”

Fitzroy shared some of her stories about becoming a renowned heat transfer and fluid flow expert with Your Niskayuna. Her interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Niskayuna resident, Dr.Nancy Deloye Fitzroy, received a lifetime achievement award from RPI. Photo by Gazette Photographer Marc Schultz

Niskayuna resident, Dr.Nancy Deloye Fitzroy, received a lifetime achievement award from RPI. Photo by Gazette Photographer Marc Schultz

ON GROWING UP

“The first thing that I’ll say is that I picked the right parents. My parents were wonderful. My parents obviously recognized, even as a little kid, the broad interests I had in everything around me. When I was about 12, I wanted a record player. Somebody said, a stereo? I said no, a record player. 78 rpm, scratchy discs. Daddy was a shortwave ham radio operator. He had all his own equipment that he built with big electron tubes and a whole big tower in his den. One day, he came home and he had bought a chassis and a speaker. He put down all these components on the table with a wiring diagram, and said: ‘You want a record player? Make it.’ People always say, ‘Did it work?’ Well, you just have to be a careful cook. It’s just like a recipe, you just have to follow the steps.”

ON UNUSUAL CHALLENGES At RPI

“Ladies’ rooms were in short supply. And one day I was coming down, I think from a geology class or something up high, and I got to the second-floor landing, and there was a professor there, and to this day I do not know who it was, his name or anything, he was just a nice man, and he had a key in his hand. He said, here’s a key, it’s yours, and it’s the only one, no one else has one, and it goes to that door right there. And I opened the door and looked in, and it was the maintenance {room]. There was a slop sink and a toilet; that’s all that was in there. Now today, it is actually a ladies’ room. They put a little panel across where the toilet is and put in a lavatory. That man was so nice, and to this day I never knew who he was. But I was very grateful I didn’t have to walk clear across campus every time I wanted to go to the john.”

ON JOB HUNTING

“After graduating, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. But the guys had trouble getting jobs, too. I went for an interview in the Pittsburgh building, which was the big administration building. It was a lovely, paneled place with a Persian rug on the floor and a lovely mahogany desk in the corner, and when the time of my appointment arrived, I knocked on the door. My interviewer looked at me, and looked down at his appointment book, and he looked up at me. And he said, ‘Little girl, what are you doing here?’ I was there for a job interview! I’d graduated! And it’s OK, because I recognized the world that I was in. I don’t beat my head against the wall. I turned to go away and he said, “Oh, come on in, I’d like to talk to you! I’ve got a daughter about your age and I wouldn’t want her working in my dirty old plant.’ So I went in and we chatted for a while.”

ON HER EARLY CAREER

“Finally, General Electric hired me, but they wouldn’t hire me as an engineer. They hired me as an engineering assistant. I thought the work would be fun. It was nuclear energy, and it was at the research laboratory. I was doing heat transfer in the core of a liquid metal-cooled nuclear reactor and doing the shielding calculations. So I did that for a couple of years and I thought ‘OK, I’ll do the same work as the other guys.’ But after a couple of years, I checked to see whether I was being treated fairly. The guys were making 75 bucks a week, and I was making 50. But then I thought, you know, I’m making more than any girl that I know.”

ON MOVING UP

“After a couple of years as an engineering assistant, I started getting itchy feet and wanted to work on the same project my husband was working on. We were firing German V2 rockets, and I was doing transient thermodynamic analysis. I did an end run around the whole GE system and went and talked to this guy who wanted to hire me. And he gave me a test. And he said, ‘Well, you would’ve solved the problem the same way I solved it, but I’m not going to make you an engineer. Suppose you turn out not to be any good and I’ll be stuck with you!’ And I said, ‘that’s OK, because the work will be fun.’ It was interesting and I wanted to do it. After about six months, he said the work I took over was something a Ph.D. candidate was working on, so he made me an engineer. My salary never caught up with the guys. Not till the very end. But I didn’t worry about that.”

ON BEING A ROLE MODEL

“In my time, young women didn’t work. I was not the norm. You didn’t work unless you had to, and I never had to. But I thought ‘Golly, if I’m going to be in this world I might as well do something useful.’ People always say how I’m a role model for young women, but I’m a role model for boys, too! I tell them, ‘Go do your thing.’ Don’t let somebody say, ‘Oh, it’ll be so hard to study engineering.’ If you study engineering and get a degree, even if you choose not to work as an engineer, the stuff you learn is really going to help you with your everyday life in this society we live in.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.