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Widnall Showed Early Interest In Science, Math


WASHINGTON (Oct. 2) -- As a young girl growing up in Tacoma, Wash., Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall followed her father around the house learning to fix everything from fences to plumbing. "I was grown up before I realized you could hire people to come to your house to do that stuff," she says.

The oldest of Rolland and Genevieve Evans' two daughters, Widnall went to all-female Catholic schools where her interest in math and science flourished. In her junior year, she won national honors for a science fair project on the radioactive decay of uranium. That brought her to attention of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnae who encouraged her to apply.

She entered MIT in the fall of 1952. In her class of 936 students, 23 were women. Widnall was one of only two women to go straight to graduate school.

"I spotted early on that she was a brilliant student," says Prof. Holt Ashley, who served as advisor for Widnall's class of 1956 and later taught at Stanford. "It was very unusual then for a woman at MIT to continue on to graduate work."

Widnall earned her doctorate in 1964 and stayed on to teach, becoming a full professor a decade later.

Ashley credits his former student with doing fundamental theoretical and experimental work on fluid mechanics. "She studied what we call low speed aerodynamic flows in both water and air," says Ashley. "She has very much improved our basic understanding of that area."

Widnall, who holds three patents in her field, was elected the first woman president of the MIT faculty Senate in 1979 and later served as assistant provost. She worked on consulting projects for the Air Force, served on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Air Force and the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Air Force Academy. She also is past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Her freshman year at MIT, Widnall met an upperclassman who lived in the fraternity across the street. "We didn't spend too much time dating as undergraduates. School was too tough," says Bill Widnall.

Bill and Sheila Widnall were married on June 11, 1960, back in Tacoma. They have a son, William, and a daughter, Ann.

Bill Widnall left his work to come to Washington with his wife. As the spouse of the secretary, he has traveled overseas with her and he has participated in such traditional groups as the Arlington Ladies, a group of Air Force wives that attend the funerals for Air Force people. He also joined in the efforts to build the Women in Military Service memorial (which will be dedicated this month).

Both Widnalls are fervent cyclists. The past two summers, Secretary Widnall led an Air Force team on the cross-Iowa RAG ride. At home she has a hybrid bike and he has a road bike. They also have a new tandem bike. Bill Widnall rides in the front, or captain's seat, and Sheila Widnall rides in the second or stoker's seat.

Each summer the Widnalls head out West to relax in a cabin in the Cascade mountains. Rolland Evans, who died in 1991, bought the cabin when his daughter was a girl. Genevieve Evans, who turns 90 in October, still lives in the family's Tacoma home.

Four years ago, when Genevieve Evans first heard that her daughter was going to be secretary, she didn't believe it. "When my son-in-law called and said Sheila was leaving MIT for another job, I said, 'What's she going to do?'" recalls Evans. "He said she's going to be secretary of the Air Force. I said, 'That's pretty stupid. She can't even type.'"

In Other News:

Friday Oct. 10, 1997

Clinton Again Vetoes Abortion Ban
Clinton Proposes IRS Reforms
Air Force Secretary Widnall Stepping Down
More Congressional Grumbling On Line-Item Veto
Clinton Considering Extending Emissions Targets
Tape Shows Reagan White House Fund-Raising Pitch

E-Mail From Washington:
Sources: New Tapes 'Embarrassing' But Not Too Damaging
Gore Attends Fund-Raisers

News Briefs:
Report: Foster Was Deeply Depressed ...

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