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story.lead_photo.caption Lorie Tudor ( Noel Oman )

Lorie Tudor's ascension to the top post at the Arkansas Department of Transportation came only a day after her predecessor announced his retirement, but the first woman tapped to head the agency was put on the path to the job more than five years ago.

The Arkansas Highway Commission selected Tudor, 59, on Thursday in a special meeting called after Scott Bennett announced his retirement after nine years as the agency's director the previous day.

Tom Schueck, the commission chairman, said the decision "just didn't happen overnight."

In fact, it was made only after the commission insisted that Bennett "get a second in command that was capable of taking his place," Scheuck said after the meeting.

That line of succession began when the department created the position of deputy director and chief operating officer in 2014 to report directly to Bennett, who picked Tudor for the job.

"What we learned by that is the fact that our foresight -- 'our' being the commission, -- was very helpful and we had one waiting and ready," Scheuck said. "Now we've got to start that over."

Bennett's last day will be March 20.

Tudor's annual salary will be $210,000, up from the $174,720 she draws now, said commission member Robert Moore Jr. Bennett's annual salary is $229,944, but he was paid $154,960 in his first year as director.

In a brief interview, the 54-year-old Bennett said that he will take a job with an engineering consulting firm working in the southeastern U.S.

Another reason to have a successor in position for the director's job, Schueck said, was the commission wanted "continuity" on a range of commission and department initiatives, including a campaign to make permanent a half-percent statewide sales tax for road and bridge construction, which is on the November general election ballot.

The commission met in executive session for about two hours at the special meeting Thursday, which included meeting with Tudor for about the second half of it.

After reconvening in open session, Moore of Arkansas City made the motion to name Tudor to replace Bennett. It was seconded by Keith Gibson of Fort Smith. The other two commissioners, Alec Farmer of Jonesboro and Philip Taldo of Springdale, quickly made the vote unanimous.

"I congratulate you on behalf of the entire commission," Schueck told Tudor. "We are very pleased to have such a capable person waiting in the wings. We know the department will be in good hands under your direction."

Schueck called the day both sad because of Bennett's departure and good because of Tudor's new role.

Moore agreed.

"Scott, we appreciate you immensely, your service, your leadership," he said. "I speak for all the commissioners Lorie, we're happy beyond measure for your long service and preparation for the job. We know you are going to do a great job for the department and the people of Arkansas."

Taldo also gave credit to Bennett for making Tudor his top deputy.

"One of the best attributes of a leader is prepare for your exit," he said.

Farmer called Tudor "uniquely qualified" for the "extraordinary circumstances" facing the department, which include the sales tax initiative as well as an ongoing efficiency study by the Legislature.

Gibson said he had "every confidence ... that [Tudor] will do a fantastic job. There's not a better person we could have selected."

In brief remarks after the vote, Tudor said she was "humbled and honored" and pledged to "do my utmost best to make you all proud ... and move the department forward."

In a nod to Bennett, she added, "I've had a great mentor all these years."

Tudor began her career at the department 36 years ago as a clerk typist.

But the modest beginnings helped her find her calling as a licensed professional engineer. Tudor quit in 1995 to return to school, obtaining an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Memphis. She returned to the department in 1998 as a newly minted civil engineer in the planning department.

Tudor went on to hold positions in planning, research and program management before succeeding Bennett as the assistant chief engineer for planning in 2011.

She said she is proud to be the first woman to head the agency, but noted that women in supervisory roles at the department isn't uncommon nowadays.

Tudor can point to Jessie Jones and Keli Wylie, licensed professional engineers both. Jones heads the agency's transportation planning and policy section. Wylie is the alternative project delivery administrator for the department.

"Over the years, females have become more and more prevalent in supervisory roles at the Department -- particularly in engineering roles," Tudor said. "However, to be selected to be the first female director is truly an honor and a privilege."

But Tudor said she couldn't have advanced her career without her colleagues, both male and female.

"In every position I have held, my mostly male peers, subordinates and superiors have supported me, treated me with respect, coached, mentored and advised me," she said.

"At the same time, I have been inspired by the incredibly strong and amazing women I have served with."

Among the congratulations Tudor received on social media was a tweet from the Arkansas chapter of WTS, which fosters professional development and networking for female transportation professionals. Tudor helped found the chapter.

WTS stands for Women's Transportation Seminar, which was what it was called when it was established in 1977 when, according to its website, "women couldn't get subsidized for association memberships unless they were educational."

The organization now boasts 79 chapters in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, with a membership of 6,500, men included.

Metro on 02/21/2020

Print Headline: Top deputy to take over Arkansas' road agency

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