Anny Coury can’t type.
It’s a statement you’d never, never read about nor ask of a male geologist.
And that’s the point here. Coury’s career in geology – highlighted by 20 years at the U.S. Geological Survey, where she evaluated potential world oil resources – was, in large part, about breaking glass ceilings for women.
Even if she never thought they were that unbreakable. Even if she never considered herself a role model.
For starters, her father didn’t want her to type. When she was a little girl, her dad, a chemical engineer in Poland, urged her never to learn to do so, wanting to keep her out of the secretarial pool – wanting her, instead, to become something more.
It was a decision that keeps resonating in her life.
“Can we,” she wrote back after receiving a list of questions, “do this by phone?”
The first time I called, she was unavailable. She was teaching Yoga.
Anny Coury is 87.
Anny Coury, one of the pioneers of geology – a title she doesn’t particularly like (the real pioneers never do) – spent the early part of her career, before the USGS, exploring and drilling in Texas.
By the time she retired she had overseen the operations of her own assigned areas, headed projects, was perhaps the first woman geologist to visit an offshore rig and rose high in the ranks of the USGS hierarchy.
But put all that aside for a moment, as well as her groundbreaking work, editing “Prospective Hydrocarbon Provinces of the World,” which was part of AAPG’s “Basins of the World” series.
Hers is a personal story: A love of geology, sure, and the people in it, but a story, more importantly, of survival and modesty, one that goes back to the 1930s and early ’40s, when, as a young girl and along with her family, fled from the Nazis through Europe – a journey that would lead them from Paris to Spain to Portugal to New York to the deep South of America and eventually to Fort Worth.
It was a time (you soon learn by listening to her) that defined her, but didn’t imprison her.
Three Strikes and a Glass Ceiling
“You want to know why I became a geologist,” this woman who finished high school at 15 and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin at 19 asked and laughed. “You really want to know?”
“My father wanted me to be a doctor, but I was not social enough. I mean, I didn’t know I wasn’t social enough, but I wasn’t.”
Still, she thought, in her words, it would be a “fine idea” to go into medicine. But then UT geology professor Sam Ellison talked to her about majoring in geology.
Medicine? She was told to forget it – and to forget it for three reasons.
“He said, ‘Number one: you’re a woman.’ Now remember, this is 1944,” she recalled. “‘Number two, you’re Jewish. Number three, you’re not a veteran.’
“So, I had three strikes against me because there was a quota for women, for Jews, and there was a preference for veterans,” she said, “so I thought I’d study geology because I was in Texas and there was a lot of oil there. So that’s what I did.”
It was not that geology didn’t have similar exclusionary walls; they just weren’t as impossible to traverse.
“I think, unconsciously, it attracted me to be in a field that was not normal for women,” she said. “I wanted a challenge – so I got my degree in geology and went to Houston and started looking for a job.”
Houston, she said, was “where the action was.” So there she started knocking on doors.
“First thing they asked me – ‘Can you type?’”
She was – maybe because of that – finally offered and took an entry-level position at Hoard Exploration Co., a small oil and gas company, where she correlated old geophysical records.
It was a nice job – but she wanted more.
She got a job offer from a consultant, J. Brian Eby, who had an office in the Esperson Building near Hoard’s offices. Of course, his first question was, “Can you type?”
No, she said – a good answer, because he put her to work on prospects.
She knew, though, she wanted to get into exploration, despite being told flat out by some companies, “We don’t hire women.”
At that time, she says, she knew of only three other women working in petroleum in Houston – Doris Curtis, Joyce Jones and Ann Leeds.
Then Western Natural Gas, a division of El Paso Natural Gas, a company that had leases in South Texas and Canada, offered her a job as an explorer – but there was a hitch.
The chief geologist who hired her said, “You know, if you were a man I would offer you this much.”
It was about $325 a month – about the industry average in 1951 or ’52.
“But since you’re a woman,” he told her, “I can only pay you this much.”
It was about $50-75 less.
“Sure,” she said, “I’ll take it.’”
She worked there a couple of years, got to drill her own wells, the chance to look at logs – her logs – before anyone else, was offered work on an offshore rig, though, she was cautioned there would not be a special bathroom for her when she got there.
“I told them I was not worried about it.”
Was she aware of the inequality?
“You know, I was not aware. I was not unhappy. I was doing what I liked to do; I was getting paid for it. Maybe I was too innocent or dumb to realize what was going on, but I was not dissatisfied.”
It was a different time.
It was a terrible time.
Her parents were born in Ukraine and Poland, in parts of those countries, more specifically, regularly being absorbed by other nations.
“My parents knew I was going to be an only child, because they knew from their experience, they would have to run,” she recalled. “My parents’ lives were geared to an eventual escape from Hitler.”
And they did.
In grade school, she remembers going to school with her lunch in one hand and her gas mask in another.
When the Nazis came, her family fled Paris. The trek though Europe began, culminating in a moment in a Portuguese embassy, where her father hid in the restroom after being told to come back the next day to retrieve the necessary travel documents.
“I cry every time I tell this story,” she said, her voice quivering. “He heard the cleaning crew arrive later that night and ventured out and into the office and discovered the consul general was still there. My father … he … he got on his knees and begged for visas to save his family.”
“And we got them.”
An only child – they knew.
Years later, after her mother died – a year after her father (they were both 55) – a nurse asked Coury about her next of kin.
“I didn’t have any.”
“But, of course now,” Coury said, nursing a cold and juggling another call with her daughter, “I made a family, I have kids, grandkids and I’m not bitter.”
Not entirely anyway.
“I forgive and forget, but I won’t go to Germany,” she said. “I don’t think all Germans are Nazis, I don’t think all Germans are bad, but they abolished my family.”
Today … and Tomorrow
It’s difficult to get back to geology after hearing this, for Anny Coury is more than her résumé, more than a successful geologist in an industry dominated by old white men.
In talking about her career – and Robbie Gries, a past AAPG president, calls it “enormous” – Coury takes it all in stride. She has no regrets, no unfulfilled professional goals.
Indeed, despite the many challenges facing women in general and her specifically, Coury eventually was able to work at places that were “very modern … in their approach to working professional women.”
In fact, at one point in her career (working for Union Texas Petroleum) her boss was the late AAPG member and Pioneer Award winner Frank Sonnenberg, who proved to be a great mentor – he had her working on stratigraphic traps around salt domes – and they remained good friends long after she left the company.
She retired from the USGS in 1995, and as mentioned, she teaches Yoga. She’s also a sculptor, and she’s traveled throughout the world.
She sees herself as something of an outsider. Still, of her time with the USGS and its scientists, she talks of overcoming not gender, but expectations.
“Most of them are snobbish Ph.D.’d geologists, but I didn’t have a Ph.D.,” she said. “I didn’t even have a master’s degree, but I made it to GS-15, top of the grade.”
That she did.
And she still can’t type.