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Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, Oldest Active-Duty Military Officer, Is Retiring

June 30, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rear Adm. Grace M. Hopper, the nation’s oldest military officer on active duty, has decided to retire this summer, Pentagon officials said Monday.

The 79-year-old Hopper’s pioneering work in developing the computer programming language COBOL won her the nickname ″Grand Old Lady of Software.″

Several sources described Hopper’s decision to step down as involuntary. But Capt. Mike Sherman, a spokesman for Navy Secretary John F. Lehman, flatly denied that Hopper was being forced out of the service.

″That’s her decision,″ Sherman said after consulting with Lehman. ″It was her choice. She sent in a letter requesting voluntary retirement. The secretary would not order her ashore.″

Hopper, who plans to end her military career in August with a retirement ceremony aboard the Constitution in Boston - the oldest commissioned ship in the Navy - is leaving the Navy on amiable terms, one Pentagon official said Monday.

″But she has made it clear to friends that she would have preferred not to retire at this time,″ he said.

Hopper is described by admirers as a vigorous woman who maintains a schedule that would tire many individuals half her age. A Navy biography of her awards, honorary degrees and professional activities requires four pages of single-spaced type.

″It has nothing to do with her work,″ said another official, who also agreed to discuss the matter only if not identified. ″It’s a question of flag (admiral) billets. There are only so many authorized flag slots. The Navy wants to use that slot someplace else and I think she saw the handwriting on the wall.″

The official would not elaborate on how the Navy planned to use Hopper’s one-star slot. The Navy is currently authorized by Congress to have 253 admirals, of which 131 are one-star slots of the type held by Hopper.

Efforts to contact Hopper on Monday were unsuccessful. An aide at the Naval Data Automation Command, where Hopper works as a special advisor, said the admiral was out of town on a speaking engagement.

The normal retirement age for a military officer is 62. Hopper has remained on active duty, however, under a procedure approved by Congress that allows for special year-by-year extensions.

Hopper, born Dec. 9, 1906, in New York City, joined the Naval Reserve in 1943 during World War II. By then, she had already received a PhD from Yale University and spent a decade working as a professor of mathematics at Vassar College.

Because of her background, she was assigned by the Navy to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, where she learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, the so-called Mark I.

After the war, she remained in the Naval Reserve but joined the Eckert- Mauchly Computer Corp., which was then building UNIVAC I, the first commercial large-scale electronic computer. She remained with the company as a senior programmer when it was bought by Remington Rand and later merged into the Sperry Corp.

It was while working with Sperry that Hopper pursued ground-breaking research on computer programs and played an instrumental role in the development of COBOL, one of the most widely accepted of all ″languages″ for large-scale computers.

In 1966, Hopper decided to retire from the Naval Reserve, having attained the rank of commander. Less than a year later, however, on Aug. 1, 1967, she was recalled to active duty and asked to standardize the Navy’s computer programming languages.

In 1982, with the retirement of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, Hopper became the oldest officer still on active duty in the armed services. She had attained the rank of captain in 1973 and won her star in 1983.

Rickover, like Hopper, was allowed to remain on active duty long past normal retirement age through annual extensions. Rickover wanted to remain on active duty, but was forced to retire in 1982 when President Reagan refused to back another one-year tour.

Hopper is prominently mentioned to tourists visiting the Pentagon because of an exhibit on her career maintained in the Military Women’s Corridor.

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