1986: The Passing of a Pivotal Transportation Leader in Oklahoma

March 30, 1986

Richard Arista “Dick” Ward, who served as both Oklahoma’s director of transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), died after suffering a heart attack at his home in the city of Stillwater in the north-central region of the Sooner State. He was 66.

Ward started out life on February 15, 1920, in southwestern Oklahoma, where his father — a Spanish-American War veteran — was a Methodist minister who served as a circuit rider for various small-town churches in that part of the state. The younger Ward began studying at Oklahoma A&M College in Stillwater in 1938. Those studies, however, were interrupted by military service during World War II. Ward participated in the Normandy invasion and was in Germany in 1945 when the war in Europe ended. Ward would ultimately resume his studies after the war and graduate as a civil engineer in 1950.     

Ward’s started his career with the Oklahoma Department of Highways as a chainman on a survey crew, and he steadily worked his way up through the ranks of that agency. Holding a succession of engineering and executive positions, he was promoted to deputy director and chief engineer in 1971 and became director the following year. Ward became the state’s first director of transportation in 1976 when the agency was reorganized as the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Ward would serve as head of that agency longer than anybody else to date. It was under his leadership that Oklahoma became one of the first states to complete its portion of the Interstate Highway System.

Throughout that time, Ward involvement in transportation activities went beyond just Oklahoma. He served as a member of the Transportation Committee of the National Governors Association, for example, and was president of the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway and Transportation Officials (now Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials). 

Ward became very involved as well in various AASHTO activities, chairing the Administrative Subcommittee on Internal Audit. Prior to being named the association’s vice president, he also served for a couple of terms on the Executive Committee.

In November 1980, Ward was elected president of AASHTO at the association’s 66th annual meeting in Las Vegas. He was first person from Oklahoma, one of AASHTO’s founding states in 1914, to lead the association. (The 1980 AASHTO annual meeting was also the first one for  Francis B. Francois as the association’s executive director; he served in that position until 1999.)

Ward’s tenure as AASHTO president was defined in large part by continued efforts to build on and strengthen the association’s expertise and services when it came to multimodal rather than just highway-oriented issues. There was also enhanced outreach with other stakeholders in the transportation community. “We have now developed closer working relationships with a number of sister organizations, and have helped to form working coalitions on a number of issues,” assessed Francois in a report to Ward and others on the Executive Committee in September 1981.

Other AASHTO accomplishments during Ward’s presidency were a growing involvement in transportation computer design software with the rollout of the Bridge Analysis and Rating Systems (BARS) program. “It has been a busy year for AASHTO, and like the harvest in the fields, it has been a fruitful year for our Association and for Transportation,” said Ward at the end of his term at the association’s annual meeting in Chicago in October 1981. He also noted, “These last two decades of the twentieth century will lay the groundwork for the twenty-first century . . . We look toward that future with an acceptance of change.”

After stepping down as AASHTO president, Ward continued serving as the Oklahoma director of transportation until he reached the state’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in February 1985. Later that same year, the Oklahoma City-based headquarters building of the state’s department of transportation was named in his honor.

Ward died only about 13 months after retiring. “Dick Ward was the architect of Oklahoma’s modern transportation system,” proclaimed George Nigh, the governor of Oklahoma, in a subsequent tribute. “He was a great friend and an outstanding public servant.”

Photo Credit: AASHTO

Additional information on Richard A. Ward and other significant figures in Oklahoma’s transportation history is available at https://www.odot.org/odot100/moments/index.htm

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