Dr. Lovenia DeConge-Watson spent 37 years in higher education, 29 of them at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Although most of her career was devoted to teaching and administration, DeConge-Watson published several short mathematical notes, three of them in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Mary Lovenia DeConge was born on October 3, 1933, in Wickliff, Louisiana. She was the seventh of nine children born to Adina Rodney DeConge, a homemaker, and Alphonse Frank DeConge, a farmer and jack-of-all-trades. Her parents were Creoles who spoke very little English, and her first language was the French that was spoken in her home. The DeConge family settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1943.
Educated in segregated Louisiana schools, DeConge's mathematical abilities were obvious in elementary school and by high school she excelled at math. In 1949, at the age of 16, DeConge was called to the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Although she lacked a college education, DeConge taught at parochial elementary schools in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette Dioceses from 1952 until 1955. In 1957 she took her permanent vows as Sister Mary Sylvester DeConge.
By the time she entered college, DeConge knew that she wanted to become a mathematician, while continuing to study French. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and French in 1959 from Seton Hall College in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. After graduation DeConge taught mathematics and science at Holy Ghost High School in Opelousas, Louisiana, until 1964. She also taught at Delisle Junior College in Delisle, Mississippi, between 1962 and 1964. A National Science Foundation fellowship enabled her to earn a Master of Arts degree in mathematics and French from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1962.
In 1964 DeConge began studying for her doctoral degree in mathematics at St. Louis University in Missouri. She earned her PhD in 1968, with a minor in French. DeConge's dissertation, under the direction of Raymond Freese, was entitled 2-Normed Lattices and 2-Metric Spaces. That same year she was appointed assistant professor of mathematics at Loyola University in New Orleans. While at Loyola, DeConge published three papers on Cauchy problems in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1972 she published a paper in the Journal of Mathematical Analytical Applications and coauthored a University of New Mexico Technical Report. DeConge was appointed to the mathematics faculty at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge, in 1971. She would spend the remainder of her career there.
By 1976 DeConge had become ill with an unknown disorder. Eventually she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease of the immune system. Her illness resulted in her decision to take a year's leave from Southern and she joined the technical staff at Rockwell International in Anaheim, California. Upon her return to Southern, DeConge chose to leave her Order. In 1983 she married Roy Watson, Sr. and became Dr. Lovenia DeConge-Watson.
A devoted teacher, Dr. DeConge-Watson told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB): "I have had many wonderful students over the years. Many have gone on for their master's and doctorate degrees and that has been most rewarding for me." DeConge-Watson wrote two unpublished books: a geometry text for use in her university courses and a textbook used by elementary-school math teachers to study for their competency exams. DeConge-Watson ran a summer and Saturday training program for elementary-, middle-, and high-school math teachers. When she visited their classrooms to evaluate their progress, she found that many of the teachers were very insecure in their own mathematical knowledge. DeConge-Watson told CBB that the teachers often seemed to pass their "math anxiety" on to their students. She further explained that although she believed teacher competency in Louisiana was improving, she felt strongly that math teachers at all levels should have majored in math in college.
DeConge-Watson served as chair of Southern's mathematics department from 1986 until 1995, when she retired from teaching to become a full-time administrator. She told CBB: "I used to prefer teaching to administrative work, but by the time I left teaching in 1995, the students cared about nothing but the grades and they didn't care how they got them. I believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake. But students now need a reason for everything. Everything has to be useful and entertaining. And they don't study." Nevertheless DeConge-Watson returned to teaching a graduate course during the 2002–03 academic year.
From 1995 through 1998 DeConge-Watson directed the Center for Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology at Southern University and the A&M College System, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 1998 she retired as a professor emeritus of mathematics; however her retirement proved to be short-lived. A few months later DeConge-Watson returned to Southern to serve as interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. During the 2002–03 academic year, she served as interim chair of the mathematics department. In 2003 she was named interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, applying her skills to student learning and retention. She retired entirely in 2004.
DeConge-Watson was a charter member of the Southern University Chapter of Pi Mu Epsilon, a national mathematics honor society, as well as a member of various other mathematics associations. As of 2005, DeConge-Watson was active in church committee work, while writing a history of her family dating back to 1851. She told CBB: "I have enjoyed my life all of the time. I've never really been unhappy. Even though I decided to leave the convent, I was not unhappy there."
At a Glance …
Born Mary Lovenia DeConge on October 3, 1933, in Wickcliff, LA; permanent vows as Sister Mary Sylvester of the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family, 1957 (left the Order in 1976); married Roy Watson, Sr., 1983; four stepchildren. Education: Seton Hall College, BA, 1959; Louisiana State University, MA, 1962; St. Louis University, PhD, 1968. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: parochial elementary schools, Baton Rouge and Lafayette, LA Dioceses, teacher, 1952–55; Holy Ghost High School, Opelousas, LA, mathematics and science teacher, 1959–64; Delisle Junior College, Delisle, MS, math instructor, 1962–64; Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, assistant professor, 1968–71; Rockwell International, Anaheim, CA, technical staff, 1976–77; Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA, mathematics professor, 1971–98, chair of mathematics department, 1986–95, 2002–03, Center for Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology, executive director, 1995–98, professor emeritus, 1998–, interim associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, 1999, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, 2003–04.
Selected memberships: American Society of Mathematicians; Mathematical Association of America; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Pi Mu Epsilon; Sigma Xi.
Awards: Southern University, Teacher-of-the-Year Award (three years), Department-of-the-Year Award; St. Louis University, Outstanding Graduate of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1996.
Addresses: Home—Baton Rouge, LA.
Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere, 1990.
Spangenburg, Ray, and Kit Moser, African Americans in Science, Math, and Invention: A to Z of African Americans, Facts on File, 2003.
Warren, Wini, Black Women Scientists in the United States (Race, Gender, and Science), Indiana University Press, 2000.
Journal of African Civilizations, April 1982, p. 74.
"Mary Sylvester Deconge-Watson," Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/deconge_sistermarys.html (August 31, 2005).
"Sister Mary Sylvester Deconge: Mathematician," The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences, www.princeton.edu/∼mcbrown/display/deconge.html (August 31, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. Lovenia DeConge-Watson on September 26, 2005.
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