As a former securities investor and owner of a lumberyard, now retired Pulaski County Public Works Director Barbara Richard is no stranger to difficult and complex projects.
However, during the Great Inflation of the 1970s, the lumberyard closed making life even more complex. Richard held a few office positions, even becoming a decorator for JC Penney, which she loved.
Following her brief time with the department store, Richard found her way to Pulaski County Public Works in 1984.
She began as an administrative assistant in the sanitation department, followed by a promotion to sanitation assistant director in 1991. She moved up the ranks becoming a purchasing attendant for road and bridge to assistant director and director in 2001.
As director of Road and Bridge and a woman, she recalls how difficult it was.
“When I was promoted, I required the supervisors to take classes and become educated in new technology,” she said. “The ‘old guard’ made it clear that they were not interested in changing the way things were done.”
One day she overheard them talking and told them that if they were going to continue to talk bad about her that she would pipe in classical music all day, every day. They all laughed, needless to say, the chatter ceased.
Some of her best memories are of the former Public Works Director, Sherman Smith who passed away in 2014.
“Sherman was a classic jokester,” she said. “I remember returning from vacation, to find that he removed the face of the wall clock and replaced it with a picture of himself. He even placed stickers on the back of the former County Judge’s car that read “I Love Sherman Smith,” she laughed. “He drove around like that until someone showed him.”
When Smith got sick, it was hard to watch him grow sicker. She said he refused to give up and worked every day until he was unable to work.
After he passed away, Richard was appointed to acting director of Public Works, where she managed a workforce of approximately 150 and a budget of $27 million.
As a woman who led a predominately-male workforce, her advice to other women would be to use “your brain not your heart.”
“Base your decisions on logic rather than emotion and always be fair,” she said. “Do not show preference to either gender, it’s about who can do the job.”
She said overall, it takes being a multitasker and understanding that the f-word [funding] will be a major factor in planning.
“Funding depends on who’s in office [D.C.] and how much funding is in the Federal Transportation Bill each year,” she said. “The Pulaski County Public Works is in competition with other public works departments in Central Arkansas that also have great projects”.
During her tenure as Road and Bridge Director and Public Works Director, Richard managed hundreds of projects that total more than $100 million including the Two Rivers Bridge, Two Rivers Park—and the Big Dam Bridge.
“The Big Dam Bridge was the best project and the most complicated project,” she said. “Until we received the first vote of confidence from Metroplan we didn’t think it was going to happen. We had to obtain approval from the Corp of Engineers who was apprehensive about building a bridge over a dam. We also discovered there was an historical African American burial site that had the potential to shut the project down.”
Richard and Smith managed to collaborate with several agencies to complete the bridge including the City of Little Rock, City of North Little Rock, Federal Highway Department, U.S. Coast Guard and the Arkansas Department of Transportation. At completion, the Big Dam Bridge, including the decorative lights was a $13 million project.
With the many projects under her belt, she does have a few things that she feels have been left undone.
“If there was anything I wish I could have completed or started, it would be to build another bridge across the Arkansas River at David D. Terry Lock Dam and to see the completion of the Southwest Trail,” she said. “The Southwest Trail is going to be an amazing project once complete.”
In her 33 years of service to Pulaski County, she said she’s made friendships that will last a lifetime and plans to remain connected to those friendships. In retirement, she has no plans to slow down any time soon. Richard plans to travel, consult, spend time with her son and grandson and try her hand at real estate investing—“just for fun.”