A Young Engineer Out of Time

Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Betty Cline - Then & Now
1940 Engineers Club
Engineers Club at Bartlett Dam

Betty Chenault (later – CLINE) came to Phoenix Junior College (PJC), now Phoenix College, in 1937 with an impossible dream for the time – to become an architect. No company was hiring women as architects, or for that matter, women for any technical field.  The country was still recovering from the Great Depression and attention was starting to focus on the looming threat in Europe, which would soon escalate into World War II.

“I often felt I was born in the wrong place and time.” – Betty Cline ‘40

Her father, an architect by trade, encouraged her to pursue her passion. Along with her sister, Rose, Betty came to Phoenix College as a liberal arts major with a pre-engineering emphasis.

Betty and Rose enjoyed taking classes in math, engineering, and the arts at PJC. They both joined the Glee Club and the French Club “Le Cercle Francais”. Both sisters also joined the Engineers Club (a branch of the American Association of Engineers). In addition to bringing in engineering speakers to campus, the club would routinely travel across Arizona on field trips including Bartlett Dam, Parker Dam, and the diesel plant at the cross-cut canal. In her last year on campus, Betty was chosen as secretary-treasurer of the Engineers Club. She even met her soon-to-be husband, Tom McKinley, who was president of the Engineers Club.

At Phoenix College, it was accepted that women could be engineers. The college was open to all who wanted to learn. On the outside world; however, progress was moving more slowly.

After graduation, Betty struggled to find meaningful employment matching her skill set. She eventually found a good job as a drafter for the telephone company in Goodyear, Arizona. Although she was now in “the field” she would need to continue proving her worth. After marrying in 1942, her husband was sent to Nicaragua with the Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian. Since the Army needed draftsmen on the Pan-American Highway, Betty applied to do her part, but was rejected.

Three years later when Tom, her husband, was drafted into the military to join the war effort, Betty refused to be left behind. She was a “camp follower” and found herself in New York. She looked everywhere for meaningful work.

“I’d been turned down flat because I was female at three architectural firms where I heard ‘I’ll close my doors before I hire a woman!’ ” – Betty Cline

She finally landed the best job she would ever have with a Swedish research engineer. The owner asked her what pay she expected and she boldly told him her worth. “But I pay my best men that!” he answered incredulously. Instead of kicking her out, he gave her three weeks to prove herself, but it didn’t take that long. After one week, he agreed with her assessment and gave her the position of junior design engineer. The team worked with Spanish engineers on the high-speed passenger train, Talgo.

Meanwhile, Tom shipped to France via Great Britain and ended up in the Army of Occupation involved in “The Little Red School House” (a small school that was the location of Germany’s signing of surrender in WWII) and Paris Headquarters. Betty, desperate to see her husband, managed a passport through her employer’s lawyer and soon followed.

“Then I found my French classes and club involvement at PC really stood me in good stead. I did my grocery shopping and social conversations without much trouble. ” – Betty Cline

When the war was over, Betty and her husband came stateside and moved to California. Tom was able to finish his degree in engineering and become a registered engineer. They both obtained employment with the California Department of Transportation; Tom in construction and Betty in drafting. She worked on sub-structures and then, after gaining more experience, moved on to right-of-way highway projects. In the meantime, she had two daughters and spent 20 years as a Girl-Scout Leader, inspiring other young women to pursue their dreams.

After Tom passed away and her children were grown, Betty finally achieved her dream and obtained her engineering degree through a local college in 1977 in the middle of a new marriage, with six stepchildren! She was never one to back down from a challenge.

After 25 years, Betty became involved with a pilot project “Citizen’s Participation.” She spent five fun years holding public meetings and translating engineering lingo to a language the common person could understand.

“I really believe everything you learn you’ll use somewhere and I certainly had a broad start at PC. And I’m grateful for that – including so many of the professors.” – Betty Cline

Betty spent her early retirement years serving on church missions and traveling to exotic places such as Thailand, Russia, and Africa. This year, Betty celebrates her 100th birthday – as Phoenix College celebrates its Centennial Anniversary. Betty embodies what it is to be a PC Bear.