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By: Melissa Silmore (TPR'85)
“Kathleen is an amazing American. She has done so much for this country and the current war on terrorism. My security clearance prevents me from telling you even a fraction of what her research has meant.”
— Major Ian McCulloh, U.S. Army
The small, round beam of a flashlight pinpoints a circle of words on a page in a darkened room. A 12-year-old, huddled in bed, gratefully surrenders herself to the futuristic world of sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. It had been another typical, long day—starting with frustration at Catholic school. Not that learning was frustrating, of course. Learning was exhilarating. And math was particularly fascinating. No, it was the way they continually discouraged her. “Kathleen, a girl shouldn’t waste her time on mathematics!”
Pueblo, Colo., of the 1960s is just a small town like Mayberry R.F.D. And it’s a poor town, especially her side, where many—her family included—live below the poverty line. Her father works for a local company, triple time, and in his spare time builds swimming pools with his tractor. Her mother helps with the pool business. Much of the family responsibility falls on her, the eldest of their four children.
After school that day, she had headed back to her grandmother’s small house, two blocks from her own, to do the family laundry. They didn’t have a washing machine at her own house. She loaded the clothing into the old contraption, using “that stick” to agitate the clothes up and down. To speed the mind-numbing work, she counted the stabs. Up, down. One, two. Up, down. Three, four. She had always been a counter, lining things up to tick off, enthralled with the numbers. She then fed the clothes through the ringer, cranking to squeeze the water out. One. Two. Three.
Her thoughts wandered back to their farm. They’d had to move here, to town, two years ago, after they were flooded out by the Arkansas River. They’d lost everything, even her baby kittens. She missed her animals. She missed her friends. On to the ironing. The small, windowless room was stifling. She’d constructed a small stand next to the ironing board where she could balance her beloved science fiction books. She was an avid, avid reader and it passed the time, but she had to be careful. She had to hide the book each time her grandmother came in, for no one believed she could both read and iron.
After hanging the clothes on the line, she walked to her own similarly small house in time to make dinner. Corned-beef hash that night. And then it was time for TV. She was expected to sit with the family after dinner. It was insisted upon. They’d paid good money for that little black and white, and it was the only time the family was all together. She was eager to do her math homework, but rules were rules.
In fact, her parents preferred that she focus more on her tasks stuffing envelopes and answering phones for the pool business than on schoolwork. Her mother joked that her eldest’s first words were, “I’m going back East to college.” Funny, considering no one in the family had finished college. Many hadn’t graduated from high school. Pencil and math text in hand, she tried her best to tune out the drone of the show.
Bedtime. She’d come upstairs, not to sleep, but to finish her math. And now, tucked in bed, flashlight in hand, she devours another Asimov book. It’s inspiring, this Foundation series, all about a system of social mathematics that can predict the future. She smiles. This book represents her destiny. She knows she can—she will—make this reality.
More than four decades later, the phone rings in the Carley household. It’s Christmas break, and the Carleys are gathered together—Kathleen, husband Rick, and their two daughters, Cassandra and Arianna. Kathleen had followed her dream to MIT, through loans, scholarships, and numerous student jobs. She’d been so hell-bent to get there, she’d purposely flunked the Colorado School of Mines’ scholarship test. She’d met Rick during her freshman year at MIT. Within two years, they were engaged. They married right after her graduation.(Continued …)