Peg Calder Puts Her Heart (and Harp) in the Work

Peg Calder (MM 1966) has worn many hats in her lifetime, from "computress" to harpist.

Peg Calder (MM 1966) has worn many hats in her lifetime. Student, mathematician, programmer, manager, advocate, fundraiser. But one of the most novel is "computress."

Anyone who's seen "Hidden Figures" knows that before machines did the heavy lifting, humans who computed things were called "computers." But when Calder took her first job — at Bettis Atomic Power Lab — the company decided that since she and other colleagues were females who computed, they should have the title "computress."

It's no surprise, then, that the Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, native went on to enroll at Carnegie Tech, studying mathematics in the mid-1960s, when computer software classes were new and nothing resembling computer science existed. In fact, most people didn't even know what a "programmer" was.

"When I said I was going to be a programmer, people thought I was going to work for a radio station," Calder said.

Calder studied on a campus populated with computing pioneers like Alan Perlis, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell, but it was also a campus that few current computer science students would recognize. (Or one her mother, who graduated in 1935, would know.) Sure, a few of her classes were in the "Potato Chip" building (Scaife Hall), which still stands, but her first programming class was in ALGOL, an algorithmic language created in the 1950s — not C or C++ or Python, which most students study now.

"It was the first class I took, and the very first day of class I felt like I had walked into the middle of the semester," she said. "I had no idea what anything they were talking about meant. And I ended up loving ALGOL!"

And forget completing a programming assignment by whipping a laptop out of your backpack and immediately compiling and checking your code. Instead, Calder and her classmates wrote their code on pieces of paper, then punched cards and gave them to an operator in Scaife. Two or three days later, they could pick up a printout of the program to see if it worked, or if a misplaced comma meant they had to do the same thing all over again.

As a bachelor of arts student, Calder belonged to Margaret Morrison Carnegie College. And as a female student, her campus life experiences varied greatly from the coed dorms on campus today. Women lived in Morewood Gardens and men were prohibited from going beyond the front desk. But while living conditions were strictly segregated, the same wasn't true in classrooms. It's tempting to assume that because it was decades ago, women experienced discrimination on campus, but Calder said she always felt on equal footing with her male peers. And there were plenty of women in her field.

"When I came back to campus for my 50th reunion, I looked in the yearbook and I couldn't believe how many female math majors there were!" she said.

After graduation, Calder easily landed a job with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, then moved on to The MITRE Corporation. She remained with MITRE for 10 years, still programming with pencil and punch cards, and eventually moved to the company's headquarters outside Boston. She'd go on to management roles at GTE Sylvania Telephone, Apollo Computer (a hardware workstation manufacturer), Alliant Computer Systems and GE Aerospace, which Martin Marietta acquired before merging with Lockheed.

While she hadn't experienced sexism or discrimination at CMU, Calder definitely encountered it in the workplace. At her first two jobs, men were hired as members of technical staff, while women were associate members of technical staff unless they had a master's degree. After a few years at MITRE, Calder was promoted. "But that's five or six years of a lower salary because I was a woman," she said.

She also met managers who refused to give her assignments, which she worked around in true CMU problem-solving form. And sometimes she simply wasn't taken seriously because of her gender.

"One time, I had to go to the Pentagon to define some work. It was some time later that my boss said that whoever I talked to at the Pentagon really liked me," Calder said. "He had thought they liked me as a cute girl, but then he learned that they really liked my work. And he acted surprised!"

Calder's career contained twists and turns, but she's especially proud of a formal Defense Department contract protest she led when she worked at Alliant, which designed and manufactured parallel computing systems. The company wrote proposals for government agencies to buy their computers, and the Navy rejected one they had written for Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Calder protested the rejection before the Navy JAG and the company won.

"It wasn't the billions of dollars of a Lockheed or Boeing contract. It was maybe a million dollars. But it made a huge difference," she said.

Calder also never stopped learning. She took courses in networking, C and C++. She even enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course once, and years later taught the material to her GE Aerospace colleagues while they waited for their security clearances to be approved during the Martin Marietta takeover.

Calder technically retired in 2003, but she hasn't slowed down. "I always promised myself that when I retired, I was going to have a view," she said. So she worked with an architect to design and build the home of her dreams on Lake Champlain in Vermont.

When the house was finished, she encountered a situation that would change her life well into the next decade. A young acquaintance had a great job, kids and home, but her marriage dissolved and she became a serious alcoholic. She was in and out of jail, and lost her home and family. Calder worked with friends to secure a spot for the woman in a state rehab facility, furnish an apartment and get her back on her feet. Calder even went to live with the woman and take her to counseling sessions and other appointments.

"I entered this whole new world of counseling, probation, family services and food stamps. What I came away with is: They didn't know how to help her," Calder said. "I looked for an organization to join that was trying to find better medical treatment for alcoholism — like the American Cancer Society, but for alcoholism—and there wasn't one. So I started one."

Thus began the Foundation for Alcoholism Research, a nonprofit dedicated to finding better medical methods for prevention, prediction and treatment of the disease. Their grants have supported research on alcohol tolerance and its relationship to alcoholism; the medication naltrexone; and a pilot program testing the medication baclofen's ability to reduce cravings.

These days, Calder has a reduced role in the organization, and has traded in her Vermont lake house for a condo in downtown Pittsburgh. But she hasn't stopped learning and trying new things. Her next big adventure is taking harp lessons. She was even in a recital in CFA's Alumni Concert Hall, where she'd never set foot as student.

Next hat? Harpist.

For More Information
Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice@cs.cmu.edu
Virginia Alvino Young | 412-268-8356 | vay@cmu.edu