For Melinda McGrath, construction is a family tradition. The daughter of a contractor, McGrath’s early childhood memories growing up in Columbus were not riding bikes or playing games, but rather hanging out at building sites.
In fact, her father, the late Bob Littlejohn, gave McGrath her first construction-related job — cleaning old bricks, which entailed chiseling off the old mortar. The salary?
“He paid us a penny a brick,” she remembered, then added with a grin, “It took a lot of bricks to make any money.”
But, McGrath has climbed the construction ladder and now stands on the top rung. A unanimous vote by the Mississippi Transportation Commission earlier this month made McGrath the first-ever female executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
“This is my most significant professional achievement,” said McGrath, who had been serving as interim MDOT since February 2011 when she replaced Butch Brown. “I think (my father) would be proud.”
It certainly has been an interesting climb.
Showing an early pioneering spirit, McGrath went to Mississippi State University studying civil engineering. There were a grand total of two females in the program at the time. But, McGrath said that never worried her, and in 1985 she earned her bachelor’s degree.
A month after graduation, McGrath was working in the Bridge Division at MDOT. She worked there one year before she embarked on what she called her “side trip.”
Looking to “save the world,” as she put it, McGrath went to New York and was involved in mission work with Covenant House. She said that experience gave her a lasting lesson — be thankful for what you have.
McGrath eventually returned to Mississippi, but not immediately to construction and MDOT. A couple of friends who owned beauty salons in the metro Jackson area asked her to come on board and manage the business as well as help open a new bookstore.
Then, family called. She was married in June 1990. Children quickly followed.
“My first child was born nine months and a week after the wedding,” McGrath said. “I looked up one day and said, ”Hey, it’s time to grow up.’”
With that, McGrath returned to the Bridge Division at MDOT. She would never leave MDOT again, but her career took a few unexpected turns.
Her husband, Hoyt, decided to pursue an electrical engineering degree at MSU, so McGrath transferred to MDOT’s North Mississippi satellite office in Starkville. After her husband’s graduation, McGrath transferred again, this time to Gulfport, where she ran the MDOT office there. Two years later, she was also handed the Ocean Springs office, making her responsible for approximately $600 million worth of construction projects. She said that experience is now invaluable to her as she oversees the entire agency and its 3,300 employees.
In 2003, McGrath and family relocated again, this time at MDOT’s request. She returned to Jackson and was named assistant chief engineer-field operations. Five years later, she was promoted to deputy executive director and chief engineer, the title she held when she was made interim executive director early last year.
“Melinda has been such an asset to MDOT in all her capacities from the district office to the top level of administration,” said Central District Transportation commissioner and MTC chairman Dick Hall.
Among her professional credentials include: member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Standing Committee and AASHTO Highway Traffic Safety Subcommittee on Highways; serving on the Construction Material Industries Advisory Board for MSU’s Bagley College of Engineering; and, member of the Mississippi Road Builders’ Association, Southeastern Pavement Preservation Partnership, Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association and Mississippi Engineering Society.
McGrath will have to lean heavily on her experience and knowledge as the new leader of MDOT. The agency is facing a significant funding shortfall. She said if new funding is not obtained, in 2013 MDOT will have the same operating budget it had in 1998.
McGrath said it would be imperative that the agency squeeze every cent from every dollar, and said the agency would take a hard look at operating expenses and belt-tightening.
However, that is not her top priority. She said job one would be safety — for the public, the workers and the moving of goods.
Her other goal is to ensure MDOT personnel understand MDOT’s mission.
“We have great people, many of whom are on call 24/7,” McGrath said. “But, too many of the staff do not understand our mission here. That is administration’s fault. We have to do a better job.”
Sitting in her 10th-floor penthouse office, renovated as one of the last acts under the Brown administration, McGrath seems both comfortable and confident. She admits to feeling some pressure as a role model to women, hoping her appointment will inspire other females to look at construction and engineering.
“I feel like as a woman, I have an advantage,” said McGrath, who pointed to women’s listening skills as example. “Women shouldn’t be scared off by math and science, and an engineering degree allows graduates to work in the field or get into administration. The opportunities are there.”
When not at work, McGrath enjoys spending time with her family, including daughters Margaret and Katherine and son Jacob, as well as gardening.
“I am really boring,” she said with a wry smile. “I think my confirmation (by the Legislature) took about five minutes. I go to work, I go to church and I go home. Boring!”