By Conrad Dudderar
Tributes have poured in for Yukon’s Gary Ridley, a longtime state transportation official who died Dec. 21 at age 77.
Ridley served from 2009-17 as Oklahoma transportation secretary under Gov. Brad Henry and Gov. Mary Fallin.
Having first been appointed by Gov. Frank Keating, Ridley was director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) from August 2001 to March 2013. He retired with 44 years of service.
During his last 4-1/2 years as ODOT director, Ridley served concurrently as director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
Ridley is survived by his wife, Eula, and his children Daphne and Joe.
Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz asked the public to keep the Ridley family in their thoughts and prayers.
Ridley “will be dearly remembered and duly missed by all who knew him” and his recent passing has been felt across all Oklahoma, according to Gatz.
“Secretary Ridley’s long tenure and lifetime of dedicated service to transportation in Oklahoma and across this great Nation is legendary and our transportation agencies are far better, and our transportation systems are far improved and safer for his unwavering focus and leadership,” he said.
“He was an incredible person, mentor and, most importantly, a friend to us all.”
A native of Chicago, Ill., Ridley was a registered professional engineer and Yukon resident.
Ridley was a very humble man who could simultaneously be “totally focused and driven,” according to District 18 State Sen. Jack Stewart (R-Yukon).
“He always spoke well of everyone,” said Stewart, a past three-term Canadian County commissioner and 31-year ODOT engineer. “He was very likeable and a diehard OSU fan, which was singularly enough to make us brothers.
“Mr. Ridley did more for the betterment of Oklahoma highways than any other person ever.”
Ridley became ODOT’s Division 5 maintenance engineer at Clinton in 1986. Stewart followed suit, becoming the Division 7 maintenance engineer at Duncan in 1988.
“Since I came from more of a design and construction background, Gary proactively reached out to me and did a lot of teaching/mentoring of the internal ODOT budgetary process,” Stewart related. “It was great in that I didn’t have to ask, but he came to me with the offer.”
Sen. Stewart recalled a massive snow storm a year later in the south-central part of the state – which encompassed ODOT Division 7.
Not only were almost every road closed, but more critically, one of them was I-35 through the Arbuckles.
“I had somehow managed to get from Duncan to the I-35 Davis rest area,” Stewart related. “With no cell phones at that time, I called Gary just before midnight from a pay phone in the rest area. He asked what I needed and where.
“Within an hour or two after daylight, it was like an army of road graders and snowplows showed up. The cavalry had arrived!”
I-35 was totally re-opened in very short order. Not only that, but the plows cleared snow all the way from Clinton to Ardmore as they came.
Division 5 crews then spent the rest of the day clearing other state highways in the area.
It was a gesture Stewart has never forgotten.
“That incident only served as a precursor to what the world later saw him accomplish in the summer of 2002,” the new state senator added. “That is, getting I-40 and the Arkansas River Bridge re-opened in record time after a barge knocked it down on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.”
Stewart first met Ridley in 1982 or ‘83 at an ODOT tennis tournament, when Ridley and his doubles’ partner came in big polka dot, long, baggy clown shorts.
“The sight was hilarious, but they were actually pretty decent players,” Stewart shared. “It was a sight that once seen cannot be forgotten.”
SERVANT AND FRIEND
Ridley as not only a good public servant but a good personal friend, according to Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04).
“At the peak of his career of public service, he was regarded by many, including me, as the finest state director of transportation in America,” Cole said. “Gary was exceptionally able and professional. He was bipartisan in his style and incorruptible as a person and a public official.
“Thanks to him and the standards he set for his department, Oklahoma’s roads and highways are safer and better located and maintained than at any time in our state’s history. And the safety measures he pioneered and instituted have saved the lives of countless Oklahomans.”
Then a state legislator, Cole first met and worked with Ridley in the late 1980s. The two men continued to interact during Cole’s time as Oklahoma secretary of state in ‘90s before Cole joined Congress in 2003.
“Gary Ridley was a wise, far-seeing and splendid servant to the people of Oklahoma both as a public official and a private consultant,” the Fourth District congressman added. “He served them selflessly and ably for many decades. I will miss him greatly.
“The people of Oklahoma and the career professionals at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will miss him even more.”
Congressman Frank Lucas (OK-03) called Ridley a “selfless” Oklahoman.
“From working with Gary on the major Crosstown Expressway project in Oklahoma City when I was first elected to Congress to the countless projects all across the Third District of Oklahoma, Gray Ridley was a shining example of a true public servant who cared about the quality of his work and the positive impact it would have on our transportation system, and the people of our great state and country,” Lucas said.
Lucas has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1994.
“Gary leaves a lasting legacy for the professionals at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and those whose lives he impacted throughout his dedicated career,” the Third District congressman said.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) believes there was nobody more well-respected and loved in Oklahoma than Ridley, who was “first and foremost” his friend.
“Gary served his state and his nation faithfully, always putting others before himself,” said Inhofe, who’s been in the U.S. Senate since 1994.
“So many of the Oklahoma transportation victories we secured over the years are due to Gary’s hard work and deep understanding of how to make roads and bridges safer.”