Fields, Evelyn J. 1949–
Evelyn J. Fields 1949–
Director, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
When Evelyn J. Fields was named director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in May of 1999, she became the first woman and the first African American to hold the position. As head of the NOAA, an environmental service agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the nation’s seventh and smallest uniformed service, Fields oversees a staff of 700—both civilians and commissioned officers—and is responsible for the deployment and operation of 15 research ships and 14 aircraft, all of which gather information about the world’s oceans, atmosphere, space, and the sun. The work of the NOAA Commissioned Corps “affects our health and safety,” Commerce Secretary William M. Daley said in a speech following Fields’s appointment, as reported in The Officer in November of 1999. Among the many important missions in which the NOAA Corps has played a leading role were the recovery of TWA Flight 800, assessments of environmental damage following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and preparation and production of Persian Gulf maps for Operation Desert Storm.
In a press release issued by the NOAA in May of 1999, Commerce Secretary Daley described Fields as an “exceptional, visionary officer,” and retiring NOAA Corps director Rear Admiral William L. Stubblefield commended her as an “outstanding officer and forward-looking leader...[who] commands the loyalty and respect of those with whom she works.” He added, “I have full confidence that under her leadership and direction, the NOAA Corps will continue to serve the agency’s programs and the nation with the highest level of professionalism.”
The eldest of five children, Evelyn Fields grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. Though it was a coastal city with a strong military presence, she never considered a naval career. “To be honest, in the early ’70s, I was looking for a job, any kind of job,” she said in an interview The Washington Post. “Growing up in...a sea town, I never really thought about going to sea. I never spent more than the normal amount of time going to the beach.” After she received her B.S. degree in mathematics from Norfolk State College, friends suggested she explore career possibilities at the Norfolk-based Atlantic Marine Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1972 she accepted a
At a Glance…
Born Evelyn J. Fields, January 29, 1949, in Norfolk, VA. Education: Norfolk State College, B.S., 1971.
Career: Cartographer, Atlantic Marine Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 1972-73; operations officer, NOAA vessels Mt. Mitchell and Peirce; executive officer, Rainier; Exchange Hydographer with Canada; commander, McArthur, 1989-90; administrative officer, National Geodetic Survery; chief, Hydrographic Surveys; director, Commissioned Personnel Center; deputy assistant administrator, National Ocean Service; director, Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and NOAA Commissioned Corps, 1999-.
Awards: Lady of the Year, Bachelor-Benedict Club of Norfolk, VA, 1994; Top 50 Minority Women in Science and Engineering Award, National Technical Association, 1996; Ralph M. Metcalfe Health, Education, and Science Award, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 1999; Women of the Year, Maryland Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc., 1999; Gold Medal for Leadership, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000; honored for her contributions to the Norfolk community, General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 2000; honorary member, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, 2000.
Address: Office —Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
job as a cartographer, and the following year, when the NOAA uniformed service first began recruiting female officers, she was the first African-American woman to join the Corps. She has remained with the NOAA for the last 28 years, and is now the highest ranking officer in the service.
Fields’s climb to the top was a steady and deliberate one, encompassing diverse responsibilities both on land and at sea. Early in her career, she served as operations officer on the ships Mt. Mitchell and Peirce and as executive officer on the and as executive officer on the Rainier, with missions covering the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Alaskan seas. Among the operations she participated in and directed were hydrographie surveys, fisheries research, and oceanographie research. Her expertise in the area of hydrography, or the study of bodies of water, later led to her appointment as the second U.S. Exchange Hydrographer with Canada. Upon completion of the assignment, her job was to review and critique the surveys in order to determine whether the hydrographie data submitted by the field units of the Atlantic Marine Center were both complete and accurate enough to be entered into the processing system.
Fields received one of the greatest honors of her career in January of 1989, when she was named the first female commander of a federal ship. According to an article in Ebony, the 32-person crew of the NOAA’s McArthur were tentative at first, but quickly found that things were not much different with a woman in control. “They were standing back a little to see what was going to happen, but after a month, they realized it was business as usual,” Fields said. For her, it was a learning experience, to be sure, but an enjoyable one. “I learned a hell of a lot about [engine] systems,” she told Ebony. “Men think in terms of only men knowing how engines work, but once the engineers began to explain things to me, I could just see the amazement in their eyes when I was able to ask [intelligent] questions.”
While the other six branches of the U.S. uniformed services concentrate on the defense of the country, the NOAA carries out extensive scientific exploration and conducts detailed atmospheric research. The scientific and environmental data it gathers are then used to serve and protect the lives of all American citizens through five main organizations: the National Weather Service; the National Ocean Service; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. In commanding the McArthur, Fields found that one of her biggest and most important jobs was to try to balance the differing needs and perspectives of the forty people on board—some civilian scientists and some military officers. “There are differences of perception when you’re dealing with scientists,” she told Ebony. “They don’t always worry about weather conditions or physical constraints; they just want to do their work...I think of it as a community with different attitudes, perceptions, and various jobs to perform.” In the same interview, one of her subordinates, Lieutenant Robert Anderson, described her as “a good leader. . .one of those rare bosses who have the ability to make people below them work a little bit harder.”
In July of 1990, after completing an 18-month stint as as commander of the McArthur, Evelyn Fields was chosen to participate in the U.S. Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellowship Program. Here, she received hands-on experience in high-level policy making and program management. Her next position was as administrative officer of the National Geodetic Survey, followed by chief of Hydrographic Surveys, and finally, director of the Commissioned Personnel Center. Along the way, she attended the Armed Forces Staff College, and later served as assignment coordinator for the Office of NOAA Corps Operations, a position which allowed her to work with all of the NOAA’s program areas and advise both programs and officers on matters of personnel placement.
Fields then served as deputy assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service, the organization’s second highest position. According to U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley in a news release issued by the Department in May of 1999, under her watch, the NOAA’s nautical charting capabilities took “a quantum leap forward.” Among the initiatives Fields helped direct, Daley said, were “the development of roster and vector charts, doubling of chart production, reduction of chart update production time from 47 to just four weeks, improvement in technology with a substantial increase in data acquisition capabilities on board NOAA hydrogrpahic survey ships, and increase in contracting out of survey operations to the private sector.”
On January 19, 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated Captain Evelyn Fields for the position of director of the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and the NOAA Commissioned Corps. Less than four months later her appointment was confirmed by the Senate, and immediately thereafter she was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, Upper Half. In addition to overseeing a corps of officers—all of whom are scientists and engineers—and civilians who operate the agency’s research ships and survey aircraft, Fields devotes much of her time and energy to building bridges between the NOAA Corps and other agencies, as well as the University-National Oceanographie Laboratory System (UNOLS) and other research bodies.
Though the NOAA Corps dates back to 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation authorizing a systematic survey of the nation’s coasts, over the last five years the organization has come up against serious cost-cutting measures imposed by the Clinton administration. In 1995 a hiring freeze reduced the then 400-member corps by nearly half. At the time, wrote Judy Sarasohn of the Washington Post, the administration’s aim was to “disband the service” or to “...establish a new civilian position to ‘manage the corps.’” However, three separate studies revealed that only a small cost savings would result from converting to a civilian workforce, and in 1998 Congress voted to maintain a corps of up to 264 officers. “Now, perhaps more than any time in our recent past, the future of the office of NOAA Corps Operations is filled with opportunities for renewal...” Fields said in an interview with The Officer.
Over the years, Evelyn Fields has received a wide variety of awards and commendations both for work with the NOAA and her participation in mentoring programs and minority recruitment initiatives. In addition to her 1996 award as one of the top fifty minority women in science and engineering from the National Technical Association, in 1999 she received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Ralph M. Metcalfe Health, Education and Science Award and was named Woman of the Year by the Maryland Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. In 2000 the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded her its highest honor—a Gold Medal for leadership—and the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a Senate Joint Memorial Resolution to honor her contributions to the community of Norfolk. She was also named an honorary member of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority at its 80th National Leadership Conference.
Confident and matter-of-fact in her approach, Fields describes her rise through the ranks at the NOAA as a steady and relatively painless process, with no hint of racial or sexual discrimination. As of the spring of 1999, the corps included nine members of minority groups and 32 women. “They did not make a difference between us and our male counterparts,”she told Ebony in 1990. “I came up through the chain of command and was given the opportunity to prove myself,” she continued. She reiterated these thoughts nine years later in an interview with the Washington Post. “I haven’t spent my career working very hard,” she told Sarasohn. “I have spent the right time doing the right kinds of jobs and obviously have been in the right kind of assignments to put me in the position to be here. The fact that I’m female is nice; the fact that I’m black is nice, but I don’t think those were the reasons I was selected,” she concluded.
Ebony, June 1990, p. 88.
Jet, August 2, 1999, p.4.
The Officer, November 1999, p.17.
The Washington Post, May 24, 1999, p.A23.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a news release issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on May 12, 1999 and from a biographical sketch provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations on October 2, 2000.
—Caroline B.D. Smith
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