On the Road Again (and Again)

By Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist

President Naomi McAfee (on left) stands with university faculty and administrators as Deborah Winbush (center) holds the North Carolina A&T Student Section charter certificate at a 1973 banquet. “My thanks to all of you and especially to the membership who unhesitatingly welcomed me in all of my travels,” McAfee wrote in the May 1974 issue of the SWE Newsletter. “I managed to visit 17 of the 20 sections and 33 of 47 student sections. It has been a magnificent two years for me and I hope for the Society as well.”

“The life of a president is a busy one, closely resembling the new ‘superwoman’ image promulgated by the media. Full-time job, SWE paperwork, travel to SWE meetings, and speaking engagements …,” explained President Paula Loring in her column in the May 1979 issue of the SWE Newsletter. “I have traveled to many places to speak and meet with members. I didn’t see many tourist sights, but I learned the culture very fast.”

Although such visits have helped presidents of the Society of Women Engineers closely connect to and engage with members, in the early years presidents often could scarcely afford the time away from their typewriters.

Just a month after assuming the presidency and responsibility for a young organization in financial and structural disarray, Miriam “Mickey” Gerla feared coming home to a large stack of SWE mail after a four-day tour of SWE sections in New England in December 1956. She optimistically embraced the opportunity for strategizing en route, writing in a Dec. 8, 1956, letter to recording secretary Virginia Tucker: “Fortunately I love writing and thinking on trains or planes, and at this time I carry my work with me where I go.”

President Olive Salembier (seated, second from left) visited students at The University of Texas at El Paso in March 1972. She had spent the prior day with the St. Louis Section, which she described in the March 1972 issue of the SWE Newsletter as “a calming influence after having been routed out of bed at 2 a.m. and evicted by burly firemen and Montreal Canadien[s] hockey players when the hotel caught on fire!”

For others, time spent on the road was time not spent answering the never-ending flow of SWE business correspondence. Patricia Brown made many visits from Dallas to New York City during her two-year term as president beginning in 1961. She helped open SWE’s first headquarters office and onboard its first executive secretary, a position vital to lessening the workload of SWE’s beleaguered volunteers.

“I believe we are making significant progress,” she reported to the Council of Section Representatives in a June 8, 1962, letter, “but I must leave many things undone — things that are important, perhaps even essential.”

Nevertheless, SWE’s presidents have often made concerted efforts to visit as many sections as possible each year, a goal that became increasingly difficult as the number of student sections rapidly expanded in the 1970s. “If there is one thing travel teaches me it’s that I’m not as young as I ‘used to was’,” Arminta Harness lamented a few months after assuming the presidency in an Oct. 6, 1976, letter to the executive committee.

At the end of her first year as SWE president, Lydia Pickup reported visiting 17 student sections and eight professional sections between July 1968 and June 1969. She created a chart to track visits made by herself and other executive committee members as well as to determine whether their visits correlated with subsequent section growth.

“I can only say if this pace doesn’t slow down a bit my only ambition is going to [be to] become a past president!” Rather than slowing down, however, Harness logged some 120,000 miles during her two years as president, largely at her employer’s expense given the meager amount SWE could allocate in its budget for the president’s expenses.

Despite the concurrent challenges of time, workload, energy, and funding, SWE presidents have often looked back on their time on the road with fondness as they closed out their terms. “The most pleasurable part of this year has to have been my travels to visit SWE members,” Sharon Loeffler reflected in her final report to the membership in June 1981. “I managed to get to all four corners of the U.S. and many points in between. Each trip gave me renewed strength and enthusiasm.”

SWE’s growing international presence in the past 20 years has expanded presidents’ travels, reflected in FY23 President Dayna Johnson’s theme for that year, “A World of Opportunity Awaits.” And current SWE President Alexis McKittrick, Ph.D., reflects on the common themes that emerged from her travels to WE Local events in her column here.