National Native American Heritage Month: Neal A. McCaleb, Oklahoma State Transportation Official

Neal A. McCaleb, whose longtime career in public service has included key leadership roles in transportation, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation (a federally recognized Native American tribe with its headquarters in the city of Ada, Oklahoma). McCaleb was born in 1935 in Oklahoma City. He graduated from Putnam City High School in Warr Acres (a suburb of Oklahoma City) in 1953. McCaleb went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (now known as Oklahoma State University) in 1957.

McCaleb started out his career as a civil engineer. His accomplishments early on included helping to plan and design Oklahoma’s portion of the Interstate Highway System. In 1975, McCaleb was part of a small group of professionals who formally established the American Indian Council of American Council of Architects and Engineers (AICAE) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This non-profit organization promotes the training and licensing of Native Americans in the fields of engineering and architecture. Along with being one of the founders of AICAE, McCaleb was named its first chairman.

The previous year, McCaleb had been elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. His Republican colleagues selected him as House minority leader in 1978. McCaleb served in the House until retiring in 1983.

In 1987, Henry Bellmon (who served as governor of Oklahoma between 1963 and 1967 and again from 1987 to 1991) appointed McCaleb as the state’s first secretary of transportation. (This position had been created by the Oklahoma state law known as the Executive Branch Reform Act of 1986.)

During his first tour of duty as secretary, McCaleb served concurrently as director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT). The transportation highlights for Oklahoma during those years included the start of construction on urban turnpikes in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa and rural turnpikes in the eastern and southern regions of the state.

McCaleb stepped down from both high-level positions at the end of Bellmon’s term in 1991. He subsequently served as president of the Oklahoma Good Roads and Transportation Association, a lobbying group focused on safer and more efficient roads throughout the state. McCaleb remained president of this association until 1995, when Frank Keating (who served as governor of Oklahoma between that year and 2003) appointed him to a second term as secretary of transportation. McCaleb also served again as director of ODOT. He also assumed a third hat as director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

During this tenure as Oklahoma’s leading transportation official, McCaleb oversaw the completion of the urban turnpikes in the Sooner State and the implementation of an $800 million highway capital improvement program that the state legislature passed in 1999. McCaleb’s other major accomplishments included negotiating Amtrak’s reinstatement of passenger rail service in Oklahoma after a two-decade interval.  

During his tours of duty on behalf of Oklahoma’s transportation network, McCaleb found time as well to become extensively involved with the American Association State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). He served as vice chairman of the AASHTO Administrative Committee on Civil Rights, for example, and was also chairman of the association’s Task Force on Disadvantaged Business Enterprises Regulations. As vice president of the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (WASHTO), McCaleb was a member of the AASHTO Executive Committee.

In 2001, McCaleb resigned from his three transportation positions with the Oklahoma state government after President George W. Bush appointed him to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. McCaleb remained in that position until following year. He has since worked as an advisor to Bill Anoatubby, who has been governor of the Chickasaw nation since 1987. McCaleb was inducted in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2014.

(The above photo of McCaleb was taken at the dedication ceremonies for the Oklahoma City Crosstown Expressway in 2011.)

Photo Credit: Scott Nazelrod (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

For more information on Neal A. McCaleb, please check out https://oklahomahof.com/member-archives/m/mccaleb-neal-a-2014

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