Strength in Numbers
Six decades ago, math whiz Connie Lewis ’63 defied cultural odds on her way to a remarkable career.
The years have softened many memories, but Constance “Connie” Lewis ’63, who graduated from Simmons with a B.S. in mathematics, vividly remembers this: After graduate school, one of her first jobs was at Raytheon in Waltham, Mass., working in the radar systems lab. “There were 540 men and me.” She laughed gently, adding, “540 men. I don’t know why I remember that.”
Coming from an all-women college, this mass of males might have posed a challenge for Lewis, a soft-spoken, quietly determined woman. But no. “I made up my mind that, in order to have something to talk about, I would learn who won the football game on Sunday,” she recalled. “And if somebody said something to me that I found—I won’t go so far as to say ‘offensive,’ but just inappropriate—I wouldn’t hear it. Because I did not want to spend all my time reacting.”
Let’s be clear: It’s not that Lewis has overcome barriers; it’s that she never saw barriers in the first place. At Simmons in the 1960s, it seemed natural to her that women could be mathematicians or engineers or doctors or anything else they wanted to be. That perception that she could do anything that she was determined to accomplish has been her credo for more than 50 years.
“Have you seen the Ruth Bader Ginsberg movie?” she said by way of replying to a question about obstacles due to gender. “That’s my generation. Nobody ever told me that I couldn’t do anything. I don’t think I was ever asked, could I do this or do that or whatever. Just like Ginsberg. She just said, ‘I want to go to law school.’ And she did.”
Lewis also had parents who encouraged her to pursue whatever career she wanted. Growing up as an only child in Swampscott, Mass., Lewis was not particularly interested in math in high school; in other words, she was not a nerd. “There were no nerds when I was growing up,” she added. Her mother, who graduated from Simmons in 1929, was a securities analyst for a bank, and her father, who graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology, worked in his family’s scrap metal business.
At Simmons, Lewis had a full schedule of classes: English, French, history, economics and math. “I don’t ever remember sitting down thinking, ‘Well now, let’s see. I should be a math major.’ It just sort of happened,” she said. “Nobody told me that being a math major was any different from being an English major or being an art major. It was just what you were studying.”
“As a mentor she challenged me, giving me tasks that forced me to learn new skills and go outside my comfort zone.”—Sarah Vaccaro ’12, former MITRE intern
After graduating from Simmons, Lewis obtained a master’s degree in mathematics from Clark University and was later hired at Raytheon, where she met her husband, an engineer. He died in 1985. After 12 years at Raytheon, she worked at a few other jobs before being hired as an analyst at the Bedford, Mass.-based MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation or FFRDC. The company does systems engineering for various sectors of the federal government. Lewis has now worked at MITRE for more than three decades. “I’ve done lots of things and most of them have been very interesting. And some of them have been valuable.”
By “valuable” she means the work she has done for the Department of Defense on systems that help guard and protect this country. She cannot, however, give examples. Her work is classified or partly classified and she will not speak about any of it.
Indeed, Lewis pauses and thinks about every answer for every question. Perhaps it’s a habit developed over the years of watching what she says. Her comments are precise; if she doesn’t know something, she will say she doesn’t know, rather than give a wrong answer.
Her ties to Simmons run deep. She has served as a class officer and has received the Simmons Alumnae Service Award. She is listed on the Labyrinth plaque, which recognizes individuals who have notified Simmons of their bequest intentions.
As a class agent, she writes letters to fellow alumnae asking for support. She quickly decided not to write thank-you notes. Instead, she promises donors that they will receive a copy of one of her “fullproof” recipes as a token of gratitude. Since Lewis doesn’t really cook, these are indeed fully vetted for chefs of all abilities. The recipe giveaway is a demonstration of both Lewis’ determination and creativity.
In addition, Lewis has been responsible for bringing Simmons students to MITRE as interns. It started a few years ago when Lewis needed help on a project and called Simmons Professor of Mathematics Donna Beers. The two had met at a 2010 Math Department alumnae reunion. Beers provided a name of a student, Kayla Tirrell ’11, who completed a successful internship at MITRE.
This set the stage for a series of Simmons interns at MITRE. “All of them have been outstanding,” Lewis said. “I have been so proud to know these girls. It’s been such a pleasure to have them and to say, ‘These are Simmons women and isn’t this great.’” Three of the five interns were subsequently hired at MITRE; the other two went on to graduate work.
Tirrell, who now works full-time at MITRE, praised Lewis for her wide-ranging knowledge. “From advice on my retirement to recommending used bookstores, she has been a great teacher and wonderful mentor,” Tirrell said.
Sarah Vaccaro ’12, another MITRE intern, recalled Lewis as a supportive mentor. “From the first day, she made me feel welcome at the company, even going out of her way to introduce me to other Simmons alumnae working there,” Vaccaro said. “As a mentor she challenged me, giving me tasks that forced me to learn new skills and go outside my comfort zone.”
Lewis has also extended a hand to faculty. Beers decided she, too, would like to work a stint at MITRE. So Lewis arranged for Beers to spend a 2017 fall semester sabbatical there.
“I contributed to financial reports; particularly surprising and wonderful for me was learning to use the Bloomberg Terminal [computer software system],” Beers said. “Connie is super smart, quietly thoughtful, and analytical. She is one of those quiet people who is working effectively behind the scenes to make sure we all know each other and things are working smoothly.”
Lewis speaks modestly about her own abilities. “Everything that I ever learned technically I’ve either forgotten or it’s so out of date as to be irrelevant. And I don’t really deal with any mathematics anymore, except very peripherally because it’s been far too long.” None of this matters. The objective of college, she believes, is to teach you how to use the library, that is, to do your own research.
Likewise, majoring in math taught her how to think and ask questions so that if she had to deal with building a radar system or improving a supply chain process, she could ask enough questions to understand what she had to do.
Lewis continues to work at MITRE four days a week. “I still feel as though I’m doing something useful, and most days, it’s still fun,” she said. And no, she still can’t say what she is doing.
And if you want Lewis’ surefire recipes for pecan pie or shortbread cookies, she is happy to assist you in making a donation to Simmons, a school that launched Lewis on her successful career.