Katherine Johnson is amused by the question. A smile starts at her mouth and quickly spreads across her whole face.
As she approaches her 100th birthday, does she have any explanation for her longevity and health?
“I’m just lucky — the Lord likes me,” she says. Then, after a pause to reflect on that sentiment, she adds, “And I like him.”
The former “human computer” at NASA Langley Research Center — whose intricate, done-by-hand calculations sent men into space and brought them back safely — turned 100 on Aug. 26.
West Virginia State University, her alma mater, unveiled a 7-foot statue of her likeness and endowed a scholarship in her name. School President Anthony Jenkins calls her “someone who changed America.”
She is hearing-impaired and soft of voice, but Johnson loves company and conversation and she still displays a playful wit. She enjoys playing bridge, as well as board games. Rummikub is a current favorite.
Christine Darden, one of the “human computers” who followed in Johnson’s footsteps at NASA Langley, is a frequent visitor and bridge partner at the retirement community in Newport News where Johnson lives with her second husband, Jim. They marked their 59th anniversary Aug. 22.
“Every picture you see of her, she’s got that smile,” Darden says. “I’m glad her mind still is good. Sometimes she forgets things, but she’s got that wit about her. Katherine was always an outgoing person. She loves meeting people and talking to them.”
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She is very much in demand. A post office box maintained by the family regularly fills up with letters. Many are from students of all ages wanting to thank her for the inspiration or ask her questions about her life. Some of the letters carry news about buildings and classrooms being named in her honor. Often, people want to talk with her, or visit with her, or ask her to attend a ceremony.
Her schedule is maintained by her daughters, 78-year-old Joylette Hylick and 74-year-old Katherine Moore. (Their middle sister, Constance, died in 2010.) Travel is very limited, but she answers as many letters as possible.
“We try to keep her calm, because her energy wears pretty quickly,” Moore says of her mother. “What’s keeping her going right now is the trip her birthday weekend — ‘I’m going to West Virginia!’ She gets tired easily, but when she has something lined up, she rises to the occasion.”
All of this attention — the honors, the letters, the interview requests — began a couple of years ago with Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures.” The book and the Oscar-nominated film adaptation told the stories of Johnson and her colleagues at NASA Langley — African-American women doing vital work at a time and place when neither blacks nor women were thought to have any aptitude for math and science.
The other key figures in the book, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are dead. Johnson has made it a point in interviews to stress that the spotlight shining on her should shed light on all of the women with whom she worked.
“She is the first person to remind us that all of the work she did was as part of a team,” Shetterly says, “and that one of her greatest joys was rolling up her sleeves and working side by side with other brilliant people. It’s a sign of her belief in her own gifts that she’s the first to call attention to the work of others.”
Johnson remains humble about the nature of her celebrated work. She talks in terms of solving problems and uses the phrase “just doing my job” as a sincere mantra.
Told that many people think her work was something special, she laughs and says, “Well, they’re crazy!”
She thinks about it for a moment and then adds: “All jobs are important to somebody. They had to be important to somebody. My theory is, do the best you can all the time. No fooling around.”
Joylette Hylick notes that her mother’s story is not all that different from the stories of other working women from the 1950s and ’60s who didn’t work for the space program.
“They were mothers and wives and community organizers and church-going people,” Hylick says. “When she came home from work, she wasn’t expecting any kind of special recognition, just like a teacher wasn’t, or anyone else. Certainly not at that time. The heroes at the time were the astronauts. She was a team person.”
It means everything to Johnson that a few generations of young women and girls have been inspired by her story to seek educations and careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. She says that means more to her than being on stage at the Academy Awards, or receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (and a peck on the cheek) from Barack Obama.
That’s another part of the message she tries to convey, not only to young girls but to everyone: Find a career that challenges you and excites you, and the rest will take care of itself.
“She’s the only person I know who says she enjoyed every single day of her career at work — and she truly means it,” Shetterly says. “She brought intellectual talent to her job but she also brought something more: an avid sense of curiosity about the world, and an openness to other people. She brings that to the rest of her life, as well. We can all take a lesson from how Katherine Johnson has lived her life.”
She began taking advanced math classes at West Virginia State when she was just 10, because the segregated schools in her hometown — White Sulphur Springs, about 100 miles away — did not challenge her. She graduated summa cum laude at age 18 with degrees in math and French.
Jenkins, the president at West Virginia State, began planning this year’s honors last August, when he attended Johnson’s 99th birthday party.
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“Rarely do we get a chance to be a part of history,” he says. “This is one of those moments, for multiple reasons. It is the perfect moment for the university to show homage to one of its alumni who has represented herself and the university and the nation at the highest level. She will grace our campus forever, and she will inspire new generations to come for as long as West Virginia State University exists.”
Jenkins says the fundraising campaign for the statue and the scholarship exceeded its $250,000 goal. He is particularly fond of a photograph he once saw of Johnson on campus back when she was a student. He arranged for the statue to stand on the precise spot where that photo was taken.
Her daughters are thrilled about such honors, and delighted that she has lived long enough to see and enjoy them.
“We’re just trying to do her justice,” Moore says.
Hylick says her mother finishes every day by sharing a “fist bump” with her husband Jim, who is 93. Communication isn’t always easy because of their diminished hearing, but they remain affectionate.
“They make sure they say ‘good night’ and bump fists before going to bed,” Hylick says. “That’s their ritual.”
Johnson says she still tries to abide by a piece of advice her father gave her — to try to learn something new every day.
But what comes after celebrating her centennial weekend with a road trip, a statue and a scholarship, she is asked. Any early plans for her 101st birthday?
“Just to live,” she says. “Just to stay living.”