The first woman to head PennDOT, Leslie S. Richards brought an incomparable combination of forward thinking, pursuit of excellence, and incredible humanity in her role as Secretary.
In offering her vision of transportation to a group of colleagues in her final week at PennDOT, her focus was on the people surrounding her during her five-year journey at the agency, the lessons she learned from them and the impact she had on those she encountered.
She was an untiring advocate for diversity and championing the careers of her women colleagues. As the first planner to rise to Secretary, she created the innovative PennDOT Connects initiative, to reflect that PennDOT is far more than highways and bridges and that it wants meaningful outreach to local stakeholders. While PennDOT has always done great work, she said, it didn't always get credit for it. With PennDOT Connects, she said, "we are making sure communities know that every dollar invested in a project is invested in them."
PennDOT Connects is only one of her programs to win national and international recognition. Secretary Richards has traveled to Singapore, Australia, Canada, and Europe representing the very best of PennDOT to worldwide audiences.
Secretary Richards started a shadowing program to let women see just what is entailed in being Secretary and heading a far-flung, $9 billion a year, nearly 12,000-person agency.
"The job is an absolute joy," she said. "I loved every moment of it. I'm not saying it was not hard … . It was tough and not easy but it was a wonderful job. Everybody who shadows me would want this job."
She takes great pride in the work PennDOT has done calling attention to the tragedy of human trafficking. She proudly shows a photo taken with trafficking survivors who approached her at a speaking engagement on the issue.
Her presentation about transportation is replete with photos of her and the people both inside and outside of PennDOT she has encountered on the way. The times depicted are full of joy and enthusiasm for the mission of keeping the people of Pennsylvania as mobile as possible.
Through her efforts, women networks were either started or enhanced at both PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where she served as chair. She is very proud of her efforts to incorporate gender neutral language throughout the official documents of both agencies. She was instrumental in PennDOT's drive to enhance opportunities for diverse businesses to engage with the agency. She was always mindful of the price many PennDOT people have paid, by losing their lives in the service to Pennsylvania. During her tenure, a new electronic Workers' Memorial was installed in the Atrium of the headquarters Keystone Building so passersby would see the images of the fallen workers as well as their stories. An unfinished mission, but which is moving forward, is to have bridges across the state named for each of the 91 PennDOT workers lost in the line of duty.
Secretary Richards also cites PennDOT's engagement with Unique Source, an employer of people with disabilities who provide photo and maintenance services at Driver License Centers.
PennDOT Driver and Vehicles Services is also working on a program to provide identification cards for former inmates on parole so they have the means to obtain employment and navigate better as they re-enter the world.
She went out of her way to engage with PennDOT county-based staff, who bear the brunt of the hard work keeping roads passable in tough winter weather. She includes a photo in her presentation of her visit to Erie in the wake of a Christmas blizzard last year and notes that while most people were home enjoying the holiday with their families, PennDOT workers were on around-the-clock duty maintaining the roads. And she notes with wonder that when asked about their actions, they humbly deflect any credit.
She ends her presentation with a quote from a fictional character on the show "Parks and Recreation":
"So find your team, get to work. Whatever the work is that you find worth doing, do it and some people to love who will do it with you."
And so it was. And PennDOT and the Commonwealth are richer for Leslie S. Richards passing this way.