Katherine G. Johnson is having quite the year.
In January, the 98-year-old retired NASA mathematician saw one of her greatest career achievements brought to life on the big screen. In February, the cast of Hidden Figures honored her, and her contributions to the country, at the 2017 Academy Awards. And in May, the woman who inspired a new generation of STEM women around the world delivered the commencement address at Hampton University.
It’s been an exciting year for Johnson, but for the granddaughter who knew her as a “normal grandmom who invited people over to eat crabs in the backyard,” the accolades and recognition have been quite surreal.
“It's an amazing story and I'm so proud. I just get goose bumps because she really is an outstanding woman,” Laurie Hylick exclaims to ESSENCE about her now-famous matriarch.
It’s additionally thrilling for the Hampton University grad, because until recently, the narrative of her grandmother’s significant role in history was essentially unknown.
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“I knew my grandmother was smart, because she was the only person in the world who I knew could multiply three digit numbers in her head. She didn't even have to write it down or think about it or anything. If you gave her a three-digit number to multiply, she could figure it out within seconds, so I knew she was brilliant and I knew that she worked for NASA for 33 years,” Hylick recalls.
But for the Jersey native, Johnson’s exact contributions to the world were concealed for most of her life. When her family found out that a movie was being made based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, the realization that her grandmother did a lot more than she let on, started to sink in.
Although the world was introduced to Johnson as the whip-smart mathematician who helped John Glenn successfully re-enter earth after orbiting space, Hylick simply knew her as a strong pillar in her community who was active in church. A proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., who enjoyed teaching and community service.
“She was normal. We didn't know. She had a top-secret job, and we did not know what she did, and she never discussed it. She was very humble, so if anybody says to her now, ‘What do you think about all of this? What do you think about all this that's going on?’ she’ll say, ‘All I did was go to work and did my job.’"
It’s a bit of an understatement for a woman who has been credited for opening doors for women, carving out a lane for Black women specifically, saving NASA, and helping to win the Space Race against Russia. In her 33 years at America’s space agency, “The Human Computer” was responsible for the success of numerous projects and missions.
For Hylick, discovering her grandmother’s story was surprising, but not at all far-fetched. She was told as a child that Johnson was so smart her school was forced to create math classes to stimulate her learning. She was aware that her grandmother graduated college at 18. And she also knew from spending time with her, that the NASA physicist was a stickler for education.
Hylick asserts, “She stressed education. She always said, ‘I just like smart people, and I like being around smart people.’ It didn't matter what color they were, or what sex they were. As long as they were smart, she was happy to learn from them.”
Hylick also insists that it was her grandmother’s educational background that gave her the confidence to perform on the job.
"Her math background was so extensive that she was confident enough to know that eventually they were going to have to come through her. She knew what they didn't know. Nobody else knew what my grandmother knew."
This may be one of the reasons Hampton University’s President William R. Harvey asked the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient to speak at the historically Black university’s 147th commencement. While Johnson did not attend the private institution – whose notable alumni include Wanda Sykes, Booker T. Washington, and fellow NASA mathematician, Mary Jackson – the HBCU grad did raise her family in the Hampton Roads’ city and was a resident for over 60 years.
As a college student at Hampton, Hylick, who was raised in New Jersey, fondly remembers spending time with her grandmother who often reminded her to, “Always be a lady. Always carry yourself with dignity and respect. Always be perfectly well-mannered.”
So it's no surprise that Hylick was excited to return to her college stomping grounds to witness her grandmother give the 2017 graduating class a memorable commencement address.
“My brother and I, and my parents all graduated from Hampton University. So to see my grandmother delivering the commencement speech at our alma mater, at 98, will be a uniquely proud moment for all of us, especially on Mother's Day. It will be an awesome day for the family,” Hylick shared before the speech.
“When I asked my grandmother about the racism and sexism I imagined she faced at NASA, she told me, ‘I went to work. They told me what to do. I did my job. I did it right, and I did it well. It doesn't matter if you're Black. It doesn't matter if you're White. It doesn't matter if you're a woman. If you know what you know, you're good.’"