Up | Down | Top | Bottom A Series of Firsts: Paulita Buckley

Paulita Buckley

Paulita completed a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics in 1957. While studying at the University she worked at the Willow Run Aircraft Research Center and for Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. Since 1959, Paulita has been a professional conference interpreter for the U.N. family.

Growing Up

Listen to Paulita describe her family including why her father, L. Paul Buckley, has a room named after him in the Michigan Union.

KW: Well, the first couple questions are about your childhood and I know that you had covered some of that. I just wanted to ask you, so, your father, you said he has a room in the Union named after him?

PB: Yes, I gave you the wrong floor because I've lived on the continent for too long. It's the second floor of the Union. There is one of the small dining rooms that I was informed is called the L. Paul Buckley Room.

KW: Why did he get the room named after him?

PB: Because he was the manager of the Michigan Union. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, then he went and served as clerk I think for the Michigan Supreme Court, but I'm not sure. And then he went back to Ann Arbor and he became the manger of the Union, which at the time was presumably the equivalent of Dean of Administration because he was responsible for all the University housing in addition to being the manger of the Union.

KW: Oh wow. How many years did he do that for?

PB: I don't know. All I know is he died in 1933. But you can certainly find it in the alumni records.

KW: What about your mother, was she employed?

PB: My mother was from El Salvador. Central America. They met on a ship between New York and Central America because my mother was going home. And my mother took one look at him, decided she had to know who he was. He took one look at her and said to his nephew "I don't care if our luggage doesn't come aboard, that is the woman l am going to marry". Literally. And as my mother used to say, "your father didn't know how to swim, dear, he had no choice". So, in the eighteen days it took to go from New York to El Salvador they wooed each other and won each other. And that was in the fall of 1927 and they got married in January of 1928.

KW: Did your mother work at all?

PB: No.

KW: Did you have any brothers or sisters?

PB: Nope, there's just me. And I am the end of the line because my father was an only child.

KW: I was going to ask you, you said in your email that you have lived a ton of different places. Was it because of your father's job or something?

PB: No, no, no, he died in 1933.

KW: Oh, right. Then what caused you to be moving around so much?

PB: My mother.

KW: What prompted her to move around?

PB: Well, because she had friends in different places. We went to Washington because my grandfather, her father, had been posted in Washington during World War I and she knew all the diplomatic corps. We then went back to Salvador because...I can't remember for what family reason. And then in 1938 we went up to Providence because my aunt, her sister, who is a religious and just celebrated 100 years of age in January, had come hack from her final vows and was posted in Providence, Rhode Island. So, I went up to boarding school and after one year of boarding school in Providence, my mother decided we were going to go California in 1939. And we were in San Francisco when war broke out. And we went back to El Salvador in 1943. And my aunt was transferred to Philadelphia Sacred Heart and my mother moved me up to boarding school in Philadelphia during World War ll. When I graduated Philadelphia I went to Manhattanville College in New York, at the time it was at 133rd and Convent Avenue. And when I graduated from Manhattanville, I had been accepted in engineering school.

KW: Did you have a favorite place out of all those that you lived in?

PB: No. Well, yes. My favorite place is San Francisco.

KW: It is very nice there. So you said that had three maternal uncles who were engineers. Did they influence you at all?

PB: Well, I guess they did, but very little in the sense that I didn't live in Salvador that long. But the fact that they were engineers. One was civil and the other two were electrical.

Listen to Paulita talk about how she became interested in engineering by taking objects apart as a child.

KW: When did you become interested in the sciences and engineering? You said when you were younger you were known as "the breaker".

PB: Exactly. Because if it could be taken apart, l would, but I couldn't put it back together again because I was too young.

KW: Was that a hobby that kind of persisted...

PB: Well, yeah, I do like to take things apart and see if I can put them together again.

KW: So, growing up, throughout your schooling did you think you wanted to pursue this? Were you interested in math and science?

PB: Exactly.

KW: Did you have any teachers that helped foster your interest?

PB: Well, I had very brilliant math teachers.

KW: Did anyone treat it as surprising or out of the ordinary?

PB: No, no, no. In Sacred Heart you did everything and nobody thought anything was surprising. The one thing that was surprising was if you failed.

KW: What were some of your favorite activities to do when you were growing up, besides taking things apart?

PB: Reading, sports.

University of Michigan

Listen to Paulita discuss her decision to attend U of M.

KW So, you said in your email that you just decided to go to Michigan because no place else crossed your mind?

PB: No place else crossed my mind.

KW: Do you think that was because your Dad had been so involved...

PB: And mind you, I don't think he would have approved of my going to Michigan because my mother said he was not particularly in favor of coeducational institutions.

KW: That's interesting. So why...was it just a natural fit then to go into engineering or what made you decide "I think I'|l pursue engineering"?

PB: "I'm going to go into engineering." I always wanted to be some kind of scientist.

Listen to Paulita describe her interactions with her male classmates and friends.

KW: What were your classmates like, in general, in your engineering classes?

PB: Good. As I said, respectful. I was older than they were.

KW: Were they mostly males?

PB: They were all males. Every last one of them. Statistic: when I was at the engineering school there were approximately three thousand students enrolled of which only thirty were women. I never crossed a single woman either in aeronautics or in physics. I only met one other woman student and she was the only woman student in naval architecture and marine engineering.

KW: Did you guys correspond then, were you friends?

PB: There were a number of chaps that...we used to study together. And one of them I still correspond with. He lives out in California, he was in my class. His name is James Burnett, engineering class of '57, we graduated together.

KW: You said they were very respectful because you were older. Did you ever feel intimidated or out of place?

PB: No, never. In those days, the word "respect" meant something. It does not today.

KW: Can you explain a little more what you mean by that?

PB: You were treated like human beings by everybody. Today, the younger generation, and by that I mean the adolescents and even some of the middle age, remember, I'm 75. I was brought up to respect everybody. Today nobody respects anybody. In those days the words "please" and "thank you" had a meaning. They do not exist today. Everybody has rights, nobody has obligations. Of course, we teased one another, but it wasn't malicious and it wasn't vicious. And we got along well.

KW: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your friends at U of M. Were most of your friends male then, did you have any female friends?

PB: Essentially not. Except the people who were my mother and fathers' friends when they lived in Ann Arbor and I was too busy studying and working to pay my education. I did not have what you would call a social life.

Listen to Paulita talk about where she lived in Ann Arbor.

KW What were your living arrangements like? You said in your email once you were over 21 you lived off-campus...

PB: Well I was over 21 when I moved to Ann Arbor, so there was no requirement on me to live on campus. I had a rented apartment across the comer from East Quad and then I bought a house. And then we sold the house and we moved into a rented house by the football stadium.

KW: Who were you living with?

PB: All alone by the telephone. Now, I do not believe in shared housing.

KW: You mean between a man and a woman or...

PB: I don't believe in shared housing period.

KW: Why do you feel that way?

PB: Because I like my own privacy.

KW: Yeah I'm living in a house with five other girls...

PB: God forbid!

KW: Yeah, exactly. Next year we're all getting our own apartments so it's funny that you said that.

PB: I'm sorry. I was in boarding school for twelve years, so that's enough to turn one off shared housing even if you've survived that. And after that, I think I'm entitled to my own interests.

Listen to Paulita describe her favorite sign of spring: Mrs. Lloyd's electric car.

KW: I was going to ask you if there were any memorable events on campus or in Ann Arbor...

PB: Well, remember I mentioned Mrs. Lloyd?

KW: Yeah, her electric car? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

PB: Oh, indeed. My mother knew the Lloyds. He was dead by the time I went to the University. I can't remember whether he was Dean of Law, Engineering, or LSA, but they had an electric car. Picture a top hat, that is a bit what it looked like. It had plush upholstery, two seats facing one another, rounded windows, in the corner of the windows there were bud vases and there was a flower in each bud vase, there were, on the seats, and the car was steered by a tiller. It didn't have gears, so if you wanted to change direction you moved to the other seat because they faced one another. You twisted the tiller around and you went in the other direction. And my mother and I were walking from the Miner Quad by the Women's League and the School of Music and I see this car go by and I say "mom what's that'?". "Oh that's Mrs. Lloyd." So, she told me the story. That electric car must have dated from 1903 and when it came out in the spring you knew that spring had arrived because she only drove it in spring and summer. That is the thing that for me was Ann Arbor in the summer, in the spring and the summer.

Listen to Paulita discuss the different rules the University had for women and restaurants had for underage patrons when Washtenaw County was dry.

KW: You said in your email when asked about the Michigan Union not allowing women you were kind of used to it, is that true?

PB: Exactly. I mean, we laughed about it. Because when my mother married my father and they went to Ann Arbor women could not go in the front door except on football Saturdays.

KW: Interesting. So it was just kind of an accepted fact of life that you grew up with...

PB: At the time it was a fact of life. People used to grumble about it occasionally but women's lib hadn't reared its ugly head yet. But we could go in. l used to eat at the cafeteria. I knew most of the staff at the Union anyway. So I never had any...but I would never have walked in the front door except on a football Saturday.

KW: And the Women's League was built to be a kind of like a Union for women, is that correct?

PB: That's what I understand. I never set foot in it.

KW: Oh really? Any reason in particular?

PB: No, l just felt "the Union is my place".

KW: I've never asked this question before, but it just occurred to me now, were there any other places on campus or in the city of Ann Arbor where there were rules like that, where a woman couldn't use a certain door or something?

PB: Not to my knowledge. The only rules that I know in town were the parietal rules in the women's dorms. One foot of each participant had to be on the floor in the living room at all times. Those were the days when gentleman callers were not allowed above the ground floor. And at the Pretzel Bell you had to be 21 to sit at a table with your parents if they were drinking beer because in those days Washtenaw County was dry. The only thing you could get in town was beer or wine. You had to cross the county line to get hard liquor and you could not sit at the table with someone who was drinking if you were under twenty-one.

KW: Did you experience that any place else that you had lived or was it really just Washtenaw...

PB: No, only Ann Arbor.

KW: Interesting. I wonder why that was.

PB: Because of the drinking laws, which at the time were county. Each county in Michigan could set its own drinking age.

Company B-4 entering the Union at chow time, 1943

Company B-4 entering the Union at chow time, 19431

Listen to Paulita tell her story about registering in the field house where they had to scramble to find a female medical form.

KW: We have a lot of questions about college life during the war that don't really apply to you. You had mentioned that the first wave of Korean veterans enrolled at the same time...

PB: Yup, they enrolled at the same time that I was there. And speaking of enrollment, since women in engineering were not common, registration for classes was in the field house. And there was a table for each faculty and you would pick up the relevant forms and go to another table and sit down and fill out the forms. I get to the medical form and it was for the male sex. So, l walked back to the table with it and I said "look, sorry, I'm not a man" and they looked at me in utter disbelief and they had to rummage to find a medical form for a female student. And I think l was the only woman enrolling in February of '53 in the engineering school.

Listen to Paulita describe her interactions with her male professors including her trouble with Professor Swinton.

KW Next I just want to ask you a little bit about some of your professors. You had mentioned that l think Swinton and the Dean...

PB: Oh yes.

KW: Can you tell me a little it about them, either why they were influential or...

PB: Well, Professor Swinton was a graduate of the University of Michigan who had gone to the Philippines before World War II. He was captured by the Japanese. He was a civil engineer and he spent the war in the Santo Tomas prison camp where he was the commander of the civilian population. When he was liberated after the war he went back to Ann Arbor and became a professor and the course that he taught was basic. If you didn`t pass it, you crashed. So, the first semester that I had Professor Swinton we became quite good friends. But, as he admitted to me, "I cannot see women in engineering". Come final exam at the end of the first semester and I get flunked. He apologizes, "I can't do it. I simply cannot". I register for the second semester. I have to take the same course over again. What do I get? I get Professor Swinton again. What do I get at the end of the semester? I get a fail mark. I do not have time to engage in this game. The third time I show up for registration, the time slot Professor Swinton had, I thought "this will not wash". So, I went to Dean Emmon's office, he was friends with the family, and I said to the secretary "I've got to see the Dean now". And I went and I explained to him, he picked up the phone, called whoever was responsible for registration, shifted professors around, and I passed my third semester. And that's how I Stayed in engineering school. But Swinton and I remained good friends, but it went against the grain with him. And when he retired he went back to the Philippines and went to work with the Filipinos in the south and that was the time of the Communist Huk Rebellion, and the next piece of news I had he had been decapitated. He was a wonderful man but he was a misogynist and then, one of my greatest professors, and I can't remember his name, he taught Descriptive Geometry. He was blind. Get someone to explain to you what Descriptive Geometry consists of and you'll understand. We had to sit in the same seats at every class because that way he knew who he was talking to. And if you made a mistake, you went to his office and you explained to him what you had done and he would say "say that again", and you would suddenly realize the mistake that you had made. He was, considering his handicap, he was one of the best professors I had at the place. Oh yeah, because to teach what he taught being blind was essentially miraculous, if you get somebody to explain to you what descriptive geometry is. Other than that, oh l think I had one Nobel Prize professor. He was a Dutchman who taught electrical engineering, I can't remember his name either. And I had the semi-friend who was doing his post-graduate work, he got a Nobel Prize.

KW: Do you remember his name?

PB: No, but his Nobel Prize was for the Super Cloud Chamber because somebody had beaten him to the, he was working on the cloud chamber, which somebody else had got the Nobel Prize for, and he souped it up and he got a Nobel Prize for that. And let's see who else...they were all extremely courteous people. One of them, I was in his class and he was very embarrassed because with the boys he would sometimes use slightly off-color language. I looked at him and I said, "Don't worry, you don't know anything that I don't know better." (laughs) That cracked him up and he knew that he could say essentially whatever he wanted.

KW: So, overall, the faculty was relatively accepting with the exception of the Professor Swinton?

PB: Swinton was the only man who simply couldn't swallow a woman in engineering. No problems with any others. They might have thought, "Let's make them sweat at bit more," but I never noticed it. And I didn't really feel that l had to work harder than anybody else just because l was a woman.

KW: That's interesting because so far most of the women I've interviewed graduated in '45, '46 and they've been saying things like "well l felt like l had to prove myself". But you're saying you didn't really feel that way, is that correct?

PB: No, I didn't really feel that way.

Career and Family Life

Listen to Paulita describe how she was treated by her male colleagues in the corporate workplace.

KW: So, you never really worked as an engineer, is that correct?

PB: I never worked as an engineer after graduating as an engineer. I paid for my studies because when I arrived the then Dean of Administration who was a friend of the family said, "Take up residence and at the end of six months you can enroll as a state resident with the ensuing reduction in tuition". And he got me a job at the Willow Run Aircraft Research Center, which was out at Willow Run Airport in what became the Wayne County Airport. I had no trouble with them either. I worked not even as a junior engineer, but I did engineering work. And then that stopped and l went to work for a private company on the other side of the airport, Smith, Hinchman and Grills. They did air icing research. And there, apart from my immediate superior, I did feel that "what the hell are you, a woman, doing here?" It got the point of where one day I got a rise in pay, I moved up from $1.80 to $2.00 an hour, but I was then detached to do the donkey work that three engineers had been doing before and which I had to do in the same time that did. And to put it bluntly, I got pissed off. And I walked into the boss's office, and it was mostly an open-plan office, and I gave piece of my mind. I said, "You can take back your raise and I will go back to running my little planimeter with my original boss because he appreciates my work." The man apologized grossly to me and sent me back and did not take the raise away. But there I really had...but this was a private industry, this was not academia. That was the only time that I ever felt that as a woman l was being stepped on.

KW: Aside from that particular incident that you described, how did your male coworkers manifest on an everyday basis...

PB: No, it was just the general feeling. It was the boss, it wasn't necessarily the coworkers. I had several of them come to me and apologize. It was the boss and I said "I'm not going to do the job of three engineers in the same time and be paid chicken feed".

KW: So, those were the two jobs you worked as a student, correct, to pay for your studies?

PB: Yes, but instead of doing the last semester, September to February '56-'57, I had to go back to work again and that's when I went to work for the State Department as an interpreter. And the young man who put me on to it, he was from Colombia. He developed leukemia and he died, but not before Dean Emmons gave him his engineering degree on his deathbed.

KW: So, before you graduated you took a semester...

PB: I took a semester off, yeah.

Willow Run Research Center, June 1954

Willow Run Research Center, June 19542

Listen to Paulita talk about working as an interpreter and how that profession treated women at the time compared to engineering.

KW: So, what exactly does that entail, working for the State Department as an interpreter? Where were you working? What were you doing?

PB: Well, l was an escort interpreter for visiting trade unionists and I did the entire Eastern half of the United States.

KW: Where were you working then?

PB: I was all over because we were traveling.

KW: You said that after graduation you were turned down for grad school...

PB: My marks didn't hack it. I couldn't get a job. "Oh, you're a woman." Pan-American turned me down for Cape Canaveral. An oil services company in New York whose name I very rapidly forgot turned me down as a rep. in Venezuela, "Oh we can't send a woman to Latin America". And I said, "Man, I grew up in Latin America. I speak their language. l know how these guys think!" And they looked at me and "Oh no we can't have a woman." So, by then, having worked as an interpreter, I decided, "Well, I'm coming to Europe". So, I was accepted at the interpreter school in Geneva and I've never looked back since and I'm still working.

KW: Right. I saw that. So, was that really frustrating for you, when people were saying, "No we don`t want to hire you because you're a woman"? I mean, how did you feel? Was it something you were angry about for a long time?

PB: Well, let's put it this way, I was not a happy camper. I didn't go ballistic but in those days it was the facts of life, particularly in engineering.

KW: So, then you became a conference interpreter, is that correct?

PB: Exactly.

KW: So, do you work from Geneva or...

PB: Well, I spent twenty-five years traveling the globe, but now I work only in Geneva or conceivably in Europe. l don't travel...I travel hardly at all. Now, for twenty-five years I was hardly ever home.

KW: In your travels or in your working experience, were you ever again treated differently because you were a woman, or was it a lot different working in Europe?

PB: There is...no it's not a question of where I'm working. It's the profession. Only once was the fact that I was a woman brought up to refuse me a job and that was serving some Spaniards who were meeting some Americans in Spain and this was thirty years ago if not longer. The offer was made to me and he unfortunately and illegally taped the conversation He also, unfortunately, forgot that most interpreters have memories like fly paper because he called me up two days later and said, "Well I can't take you, you're a woman". I said, "You made me a firm offer and even a firm vocal offer has to be honored." And I said, "And you did tape me and that's against the law in England, so pay me or I'll sue you." (laughs) And that was the end of that. But that's the only one time. In our profession there is no difference.


Listen to Paulita's advice for young women entering science and engineering careers.

KW: I just wanted to ask you...this was about two years ago and we sent a survey out to women engineers and you had written, you said for the question "What advice would you give to young women considering a career in the sciences or applied sciences," you said, "Go for it but don't be influenced by feminism." I just wanted to know what you meant by that.

PB: Because I think that the feminist movement has gone over the top. All of this gender-bending, you can no longer say "chairman", you have to say "chairperson" because you can't say "chairwoman" either. You have to feminize here, there, and everywhere. It makes you bend the English language beyond belief. You appreciate the beauty of the English language, I presume. You said you're a historian right? When you start talking about...when you try to avoid mentioning someone's sex, you end up getting tied in knots with the syntax of the sentence you are trying to pronounce. I work with language. I try and avoid getting into that and I quite frankly think you stand on your merits if you can hack it, period. You don't have to deploy umpteen million feminist "tactics" to defend your turf. People normally should stand on their merits and not because they are male or female or gay.

KW: So, l take it you still feel relatively strongly about this, especially with having to work with language?

PB: It annoys me no end when people misuse language and one of the reasons for the misuse of language is because they get themselves tied up in knots trying to avoid speaking of humans, males versus females or you have to speak in the "his/her". I'm sorry, this does not come naturally.

KW: Right, because we've all been socialized to say things like "chairman", like you said.

PB: I use the word "chair" period.

KW: It's like you're trying to find loopholes to make everybody happy and it just makes everything harder.

1. Co B-4 entering the Union at Chow Time, BL003838, University of Michigan Photographs Vertical File, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

2. Willow Run Research Center, 1954, “29”, Box A-11, News and Information Services (University of Michigan), Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan