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Evelyn Fields: A Career of “Firsts”

Evelyn Fields was not afraid to take risks—a characteristic that brought her a few “firsts” in her NOAA Corps career, including becoming the first woman and first African-American to hold the position of Director of the NOAA Corps and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. She was also the first (and so far, only) woman to reach the rank of rear admiral in the NOAA Corps.

Fields in a Classroom

RADM Evelyn Fields made it her personal crusade to introduce youngsters to careers science and math, and open their eyes to great possibilities. Click image for larger view.

As a new graduate in 1972 with a degree in math, Field’s first career position was as a cartographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Marine Center in Norfolk, Virginia, where she worked on nautical charting surveys. She was there less than a year when NOAA Corps Director Rear Admiral Harley Nygren decided to begin recruiting women as commissioned officers. Despite the concerns of her family, Fields jumped at the chance and became the first female African-American to join the Corps. Her first sea assignment was on Mt. Mitchell, a hydrographic survey vessel (now decommissioned) with a home port in Norfolk.

Hydrographic Surveying

Through the years, all but two of Fields’ assignments at sea and on shore were within the National Ocean Service and related to nautical charting. She worked aboard hydrographic survey ships in data collection, where precise water depth positions are determined by sonar to reveal the depth of the ocean floor and any obstructions on it.

Fields served as chief of the Hydrographic Survey Division and administrative officer of the National Geodetic Survey. She was executive officer of Rainier, a hydrographic survey ship operating in Alaskan waters. She also spent three months on Canadian ships as part of an exchange program with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, working with field parties in Newfoundland and the Canadian Arctic.

Commanding a NOAA Research Vessel

One notable exception to Fields’ nearly continuous work in the field of hydrography was time she spent on an oceanographic and fisheries research vessel. This experience turned out to be what she considered one of the highlights of her career as a NOAA Corps officer.

In 1989, Fields was chosen by NOAA’s Selection Board to serve as commanding officer of the NOAA ship McArthur, an oceanographic and fisheries research vessel based in Seattle, Washington. Commanding a ship is an important step along the career path of an officer, but never before in NOAA had a woman been chosen for this responsibility. Fields was the first female officer to command a NOAA ship and the first African-American woman to command a ship for an extended period within the nation’s uniformed services.

“I was ready to try something different,” Fields said. “This gave me the opportunity to work with a different scientific complement on a project not involving charting. But more importantly, being selected to command McArthur was a real high point in my career. It’s the kind of assignment you look for, and it never occurred to me to turn it down because I’m a woman. Once you leave the pier, you are really the one in control—the one making the decisions,” she said. “As a junior officer, you always have someone to fall back on, someone else who has the final responsibility. As commanding officer, you are that person.”

The Commissioned Personnel Center

Another highlight for Fields was her position as director of the Commissioned Personnel Center (CPC), which is responsible for all aspects of a uniformed service personnel system in support of the NOAA Corps officers. This position was probably the most difficult point in her career, for it was during her tenure that the NOAA Corps faced possible disestablishment as a commissioned service and a recruiting freeze was announced in 1995.

According to Fields, who by then had become a captain, “When I became director of CPC, the center was in the midst of a government-wide Presidential initiative to reduce the size of government. CPC was to reduce the office staff by half from around 25 to 12 and the NOAA Corps from 401 to 299.”

Fields went on to say that “approximately eight months into the assignment as director, the Administration announced a plan to disestablish the NOAA Corps. The date for disestablishment continued to change throughout my next two and a half years at the center. The plan to disestablish the Corps sent the morale of the officers into a tailspin. Many were concerned about their long-term careers and supporting their families, and as a result, began to resign and/or retire, causing serious concerns about how the Corps would continue to safely and effectively support operations of NOAA ships, aircraft, and NOAA programs.”

Fields reviewed and implemented creative ways to support NOAA platforms by having officers in shore-side assignments supplement, for short periods of time, officers assigned to ships and aircraft. Under her leadership, CPC continued to provide uninterrupted services to the officers, despite a reduced staff.

A Return to the National Ocean Service

Fields returned to the National Ocean Service in 1997 as its acting deputy director. Here, she said, she was able to have some influence over programs that she had been a part of throughout her career. With a perspective gained from working both at sea and on shore as a NOAA Corps officer, she provided direction and implemented ideas that made current practices more effective.

During this time, pressure on the NOAA Corps began to ease when Congress passed legislation in late 1998 reauthorizing the NOAA Corps to include 299 officers. Also at this time, the four-year recruiting freeze was lifted. However, though positions were once again secure, the Corps had suffered a critical loss of junior officers. Senior officers had to not only fulfill their own positions, but also add junior-level duties to their plates.

Rebuilding the NOAA Corps continues to this day, and the ceiling of 299 officers has finally been reached. With the increased capabilities of the NOAA fleet, even more officers will be needed in the future to operate the ships and aircraft.  

Rising to the Top

Fields reached the top of her profession in 1999 when she became a rear admiral and director of both the NOAA Corps and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes all NOAA Corps officers as well as civilians. As director, she was responsible for the management of NOAA’s fleet of research ships and aircraft and for the officers who serve not only on these platforms, but throughout various program offices within NOAA. Most importantly, she was in a position to influence policy and see the organization from a broader perspective. “This was the ultimate challenge of my career,” she said.

Rear Admiral Fields retired in late 2002.