Lorie Harris Tudor has paid her dues.
The first woman to head the Arkansas Transportation Department — which has a budget of more than $1.2 billion and more than 3,000 employees — began work there 39 years ago as an entry-level clerk typist.
1981 was also the year Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the nation’s 40th president, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, and IBM introduced its first personal computer. The year ended with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 875.
Tudor, chosen by the state Highway Commission on Feb. 20 to lead the agency, didn’t join the department intending to climb to the top. She just needed a job. But Tudor has a philosophy that has served her well, a drive to continually enhance her value as an employee. “Every job that I’ve ever had, I go into it to try to make it better than it was when I went in,” she said. “And that trait was rewarded.”
Case in point: Tudor, who in 1981 started working on one of only two word processors in the entire department, early on figured out how to leverage her expertise. “I started off learning how to use that [the word processor] and then I had that knowledge and then I just kept building on that and kept moving up.”
Tudor, 59, was born and raised in North Hollywood, California, until the age of 9, when her family moved to Benton, where she has lived ever since.
She graduated from Benton High School in 1978 and started working on a nursing degree, attending Arkansas Tech University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
After a year of college, she married. “I was trying to go to school and I was married and things just got really difficult,” Tudor said. “We didn’t have any money,” she said, adding, “Just trying to keep it all together, I had to find a job.”
‘The Glass Ceiling’
Tudor’s mother told her about a job opening at what was then called the state Highway & Transportation Department. Her mother had worked there since 1969, ending her career as a cartographer for the agency. (Tudor’s mother died in 1983.)
Tudor was hired and began her upward trajectory, working in areas like the Fiscal Services Division and the Programs & Contracts Division. “I moved pretty far up in the organization until I hit the glass ceiling because I didn’t have a degree, period,” she said, much less an engineering degree. “And at the highway department, engineering degrees are real important. Most of the management has that. We are the largest employer of civil engineers in the state. We have around 300.”
So in 1995, Tudor quit her full-time job at the agency, though she continued to work part time there for a while, intent on earning a civil engineering degree from the University of Memphis.
Her time at the department had opened up a new world for Tudor. She had learned “so much from the bottom up,” she said, “especially in the project funding part of everything. I was kind of an expert in that.
“To have all that knowledge and then to get your engineering degree made you more marketable,” she said. “And plus, I had worked with some really amazing people that were engineers, and I had learned about the profession. It wasn’t a mysterious profession anymore to me that only men went into. I saw what engineers actually did day to day.
“And I really did enjoy the work, and I loved problem-solving and making things better.”
Tudor took as many courses in central Arkansas as she could and then started commuting to Memphis.
It wasn’t easy. By this time she had a son and a daughter, and she no longer had time for the part-time position at the highway department. “I did do some paper grading and some other things and sold my plasma for book credits,” Tudor said, laughing. “You know how you do when you’re trying to just make any little bit of money you can.
“I don’t know if I should put, ‘I sold my plasma,’” she said, reconsidering, though continuing to laugh. “But we made it fine. We did all right.”
There were times that she couldn’t make it home from the university, like during finals week, so she’d rent a dorm room for $15 a night. At other times, she’d get up at 4 a.m. to make an 8 a.m. class.
“I didn’t want to be away from my kids,” Tudor said. “I just didn’t want to miss out on anything, any more than I had to. So I was very driven to both get the degree and make sure I was a good mom.”
Starting out on the road to her degree, Tudor said, she worried that she might not have the math skills needed by an engineer. She took a couple of night classes and “I found out that I did have mathematical skills or abilities.”
“That was part of the journey,” she said. “I had to build up my confidence that, yes, you can achieve an engineering degree.”
Tudor earned her degree in 1997 and started applying for jobs. She got offers from a small consulting company and from the highway department, and was interviewed by Scott Bennett, the man she replaced as agency director. Tudor returned to the agency in 1998 as a civil engineer in the Planning & Research Division.
Once again, she was working her way up. But this time, Tudor was armed with an engineering degree.
‘Work Really Hard’
She didn’t return to the department with her sights set on the top position — although she did hope to make it to section head. “No, I didn’t come back to the department thinking one day I’d be director, not at all,” she said. “My philosophy has always been just to work really hard in the job you’re in.”
After her return, Tudor worked in planning, research and program management. She was named assistant division head and division head of programs and contracts, becoming assistant chief engineer for planning in 2011.
In December 2014, she was named the deputy director and chief operating officer of the department, whose name was changed in 2017 to the Arkansas Department of Transportation, or ArDOT.
The position had been created for someone who would report directly to the director, and Bennett chose Tudor.
When Tudor was named agency director a day after Bennett announced his resignation in February, Tom Schueck of Little Rock, chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission, said that had been the plan all along. The commission had insisted that Bennett “get a second in command that was capable of taking his place,” Schueck said.
Schueck died March 3, and Robert S. Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, previously commission vice chairman, was elected chairman on March 9. Tudor is “extremely knowledgeable, extremely detail-oriented,” Moore told Arkansas Business. She also has been extremely responsive to the highway commissioners, he said.
But, Moore said, she’s accommodating not only to the people she works for, but also to those she supervises and to the public in general.
Asked whether she had faced sexism in her years at the Transportation Department, Tudor said, “Well, it was a different day and time.” Some of the things that were said “would not go over well today.
“But I was never, ever, before or after, made to feel uncomfortable or like I had to do anything I didn’t want to do.”
There was, however, “a barrier there,” she said. “People didn’t treat women back then with as much respect as they do now.
“You had to work harder and prove yourself,” Tudor said, “just prove that you can do the job without complaining.”
“That always worked for me,” she said. “I always ended up with a lot of respect from my supervisors.”
Harold Perrin, the mayor of Jonesboro, said he tries to attend all the Highway Commission meetings. He’s known Tudor for about 11 years. He called her “an excellent listener” and praised her “calm demeanor, which is, to me, a good characteristic of a good leader.
“But she doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t overreact. She doesn’t underreact. She’s just the ideal person to share your concerns with.”
Like Moore, Perrin praised Tudor’s knowledge of the department and the state. As ArDOT director, “you have to work very closely with the Legislature and with the governor’s office.”
Tudor, Perrin said, knows “the people, the jobs, the state of Arkansas and the politics, if you will, in working with the Legislature, because that’s what she’s been doing under Scott Bennett.”
“You can’t find anybody with more experience,” Moore said. “She absolutely deserves to be where she is.”