Longtime Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley died Wednesday at age 77. He is survived by his wife, Eula, and his children Daphne and Joe.

First appointed to the position near the end of Gov. Frank Keating’s term, Ridley served three governors as secretary of transportation. From 2001 to 2013, he also worked as director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. In 2009, he assumed a simultaneous position leading the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

Ridley’s ODOT career began in 1965 as an equipment operator, and his time directing the agency included the Legislature’s creation of the eight-year plan, which aimed to depoliticize state highway construction projects by establishing a prioritization list that would not change year-to-year based on legislative negotiations.

Former Sen. Stratton Taylor (D-Claremore) called Ridley “a superb public servant.”

“He was respected by both Democrats and Republicans, and he always spoke the truth, even when it would have been easier to have dodged the issue,” Taylor said. “He was outstanding at his job and cared deeply about Oklahoma and loved to talk roads.”

Gary Ridley
Gary Ridley served as the director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation from 2001 through 2013. (Provided)

Neal McCaleb, who also served as a state secretary of transportation and a director of ODOT and OTA, called Ridley a “model public servant.”

“Gary and I shared very closely the same career path, albeit a few years apart. He was the consummate public servant who worked tirelessly, mostly behind the scenes, to better Oklahoma’s surface transportation infrastructure. He was an engineer by trade and an expert in bringing parties together, whether at the state or U.S. capitals, to continually push highway and bridge improvement forward in Oklahoma,” said McCaleb, who serves as president of an advocacy group called Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation. “Upon his retirement, Gary joined the board of TRUST, and his counsel, support and involvement with our organization was felt wide and far.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4) called Ridley “wise” and “far-seeing.”

“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,” Cole said. “I first met and worked with Gary as a state legislator in the late 1980s. We continued to interact during my time as Secretary of State in the Keating Administration of the 1990s and as a member of Congress since 2003. I never had a meeting with Gary in which I didn’t learn something. And he never asked me to do anything other than help provide Oklahomans the best transportation system possible with the resources that were available at the federal, state and local levels.”

Gary Ridley ‘wanted to make it right’

Taylor, who served in the Oklahoma State Senate from 1982 to 2006, recalled specific stories involving Ridley.

“I remember working closely with him on numerous road programs, but one event after I left the Senate stands out,” Taylor said. “I was frustrated with rural northeastern Oklahoma being left out of a major road plan. I expressed this to him but did not expect an answer because I was no longer in office. The next day, he offered to drive to Claremore to discuss the issues over lunch, which we did and reached an agreement. He realized the package wasn’t as good as it could have been and wanted to make it right.”

That experience echoed Ridley’s famous 2016 mea culpa in the community of Luther when he said the rollout of a proposed new turnpike was poorly executed and caused excessive fear among area residents. Ridley’s speech can be watched in the video above.

Ridley testified before Congress numerous times. In recalling Ridley’s visits to Washington, Taylor offered a light-hearted recollection that ribbed a pair of his close friends and transportation leaders.

“Perhaps his greatest frustration was not being able to keep road lobbyist Bobby Stem and former Transportation Commissioner Peter Regan out of an Irish bar every time they went to Washington, DC to lobby for federal money,” Taylor said. “He always blamed me for their colorful behavior, as they both had been staffers for me.”

Ridley hailed from Chicago and talked sports with Taylor.

“Perhaps the time I saw him happiest was when his beloved Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series,” Taylor said. “Somewhere in heaven Gary Ridley is with Ernie Banks and Ron Santo talking about the Cubs.”