INSTITUTE, W.Va. — West Virginia State University will celebrate one of its most recognizable alumna on Friday.
Aug. 26 marks Katherine Johnson Day in West Virginia, the day the iconic pioneering NASA mathematician was born in 1918. A 10 a.m. program at the site of her statue on West Virginia State’s campus will feature a wreath laying at the statue and also brief remarks about Johnson’s life and legacy and impact on not only her alma mater but the nation and world.
West Virginia State University (WVSU) President Ericke Cage told 580-WCHS that Johnson embodies the transformative power of education.
“What Katherine Johnson’s legacy says regardless of where you come from, regardless of what your background is, if you work hard and get an education the sky is the limit,” Cage said.
Johnson, a White Sulphur Spring native, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian. She came to Institute at the age of 10 to attend the high school that used to be part of West Virginia State’s campus.
After graduating from high school at age 15, she immediately enrolled in college classes at West Virginia State, the university stated. Johnson graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French.
Her pioneering work as a ‘computer’ at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later at NASA, was widely recognized following the publication of the book, “Hidden Figure,” and the movie of the same name. Johnson’s story as a computer was told to the world as she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields. Johnson worked at the agency until 1986, when she retired after 33 years of service, a release stated.
During her tenure at NASA, she received many prestigious awards. Among them were the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards. She was named Mathematician of the Year in 1997 by the National Technical Association.
“Katherine was able to persevere and able to change the trajectory of American and world history through hard work and education,” Cage said.
In September 2017, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, named its newest building after her — The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
On Aug. 25, 2018, the day before Johnson’s 100th birthday, WVSU dedicated an endowed scholarship and plaza featuring a statue in Johnson’s honor.
Johnson passed away on Feb. 24 2020 at the age of 101.