The widow of Hall of Fame Member Robert Champine, Gloria, has passed away on Christmas Day.
Gloria Rhoads Alto Champine, 92, a life-long Newport News resident, passed away on Monday, December 25, 2023. Born at the hospital on Ft. Monroe, Virginia, Gloria was the daughter of the late William J. “Dusty” Rhoads and Madeline Fanilla “Nell” Mahone Rhoads, and sister to younger brother William Lee Rhoads (deceased).
Gloria had a dynamic childhood. She often spoke of her memories of living on base in the “Orchard Row” military quarters (also known as the tar paper shacks because the outer covering on the houses was tar paper). After being “bumped” from military quarters, the family moved to a cottage in the Fox Hill area of Hampton. Unfortunately, Gloria’s dad was killed in 1933 during a flying accident in a Keystone bomber. The bomber hit some trees at the edge of a cornfield just outside of Annapolis, MD and both Dusty and his co-pilot did not survive the crash. Mother Nell remarried soon thereafter, and Gloria and family were able to return to military quarters.
During World War II, the family was transferred to Bolling Field in Washington, DC. Being a military family meant a series of assignments, and Gloria’s family lived in Kansas, Tennessee, and Arizona before returning to Virginia. Gloria graduated from Hampton High School at the age of sixteen, and through a series of life circumstances, enrolled in a 2-year program at the College of Hampton Roads. Due to her hard work and ability to learn anything quickly, she completed this 24-month program in only 11 months. After graduation, Gloria met and married a “cute young sailor” named William Alto. Although the marriage did not work out well, it produced three good-looking children – William, Theresa, and Lee.
After a series of administrative positions, Gloria took the civil service exam. Her high exam score placed her near the top of the civil service register, and she was immediately offered a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Langley Field in Hampton, VA. She began her career as a GS-3 clerk-typist and in quick succession received promotions to GS-4 and then GS-5. These were amazing achievements considering that women – particularly secretaries — simply did not get promotions that quickly during the early years.
As Gloria’s career progressed, she was given a succession of more complex duties, and soon had a reputation for being an exceptionally hard worker who could “learn by osmosis” to manage complicated technical work for the NASA engineers and scientists. She even authored several NASA publications during a time that women did NOT author technical papers.
Gloria eventually became the Technical Assistant to the Chief of the Space Systems Division. She held this position for 12 years. During that time, Gloria completed specialized courses that culminated in a degree equivalency to a bachelor’s degree in engineering management. She held this position during the design, development, and flight of the earliest Space Shuttle, and she received several Shuttle awards for her contributions on STS-2 and STS-26.
In 1975, Gloria married Robert A. “Bob” Champine, an outstanding research test pilot who made significant contributions to NASA’s aeronautics and space programs. Their blended family included Gloria’s three and Bob’s six children.
Ever on the move, Gloria left the research “side of the house” to accept a GS-12 position in the Equal Opportunity Programs Office. She became the manager of NASA Langley’s Affirmative Action Program and the Federal Women’s Program. Prior to Gloria taking this position, Mary Jackson (of “Hidden Figures” fame) had taken Gloria under her wing to prepare her for this new position. Gloria achieved many high-impact EEO goals in this position and was eventually offered the position of head of the EEO office at both Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center AND Ames Research Center (both in California). However, due to extended family needs, Gloria declined the job offer and remained at LaRC until her retirement in November 1989.
After retirement, Gloria and husband Bob Champine (married in 1975) traveled extensively in connection with Bob’s long-time interest in flying model airplanes. They crisscrossed the country in a travel trailer and made hundreds of friends in many states. Bob died in 2003 and Gloria began to explore volunteer opportunities close to her home in Newport News.
Sometime during 2012, Margot Lee Shetterly, daughter of Langley’s Dr. Robert Lee, learned that her Sunday School teacher had been a “computer” at NACA/NASA. Margot and husband Aran became intrigued and contacted NASA Langley for more information. NASA sent Margot to Gloria, and that serendipitous meeting began a close working relationship and treasured friendship as Margot began to conduct the research and pull together the information she needed to write “Hidden Figures.” Gloria and Margot met for 5 years over the kitchen table. She talked and Margot wrote. Margot interviewed hundreds of people and dug into old records as she developed her wonderful book. Even before it was completed, the book attracted the attention of movie producers. The fact-based movie focused on the period of 1960 to 1962 and the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Gloria’s mentor, Mary Jackson. Gloria was extremely proud of her contributions to this book and movie, and she and Margot have maintained a very warm friendship ever since.
During her final years, Gloria maintained an active interest in all things aeronautical, and took on the task of writing a book about husband Bob Champine’s achievements as a NASA test pilot. Unfortunately, she died before the book could be completed.