In memoriam: Ray Douglas Pethtel, Jr., transportation visionary
September 18, 2020
Ray Douglas Pethtel, Jr. of Christiansburg, Virginia, age 83, former Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) commissioner and director of the Center for Transportation Research at Virginia Tech, passed away on Sept. 12, 2020.
A champion of innovation, Pethtel played a significant role in positioning the university as a leader in transportation research and technology.
Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, Pethtel joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 and obtained the rank of corporal while stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. He earned his bachelor of arts and master of public administration degrees from Penn State University and began his public service career with the New York State Government, followed by the American Society for Public Administration.
In 1973, Pethtel became the founding director of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission for the Commonwealth of Virginia. From 1986 to 1994, Pethtel served as VDOT commissioner and the chairman and vice chairman of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. As the longest-serving commissioner to date, Pethtel left an indelible legacy through his delivery of hundreds of transportation projects, as well as his mentorship of young leaders and dedication to improving agency practices and communications.
At Virginia Tech, Pethtel served as a University Transportation Fellow and the interim director of the Center for Transportation Research, now called the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). Through his early leadership and support for the construction of the Virginia Smart Road and its state-of-the-art research and technology capabilities, VTTI has since become the second largest university-level transportation institute in the country and is renowned internationally.
“Ray Pethtel was a visionary leader in transportation for the commonwealth over several decades. His work to develop the Virginia Smart Road was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the success of VTTI. The resulting research program and economic development has far exceeded anyone’s predictions, thanks in no small part to Ray’s vision, drive and passion,” said Tom Dingus, director of VTTI.
In 2011, Pethel was appointed the interim executive director of the I-81 Corridor Coalition, a consortium dedicated to improving the safety, continuity, and efficiency of highway travel. Additionally, he taught in the public administration programs at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University, continuing his legacy of mentoring, educating, and inspiring young people to pursue public service.
Over the course of his life, Pethtel received many awards for his achievements, including: Virginia Tech University Transportation Fellow, Penn State Alumni Fellow, Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Hall of Fame, New Century Region High Tech Leadership Award, American Society of Highway Engineers Robert E. Person P.E. Person of the Year Award, and the Rotary Foundation International Paul Harris Fellow. He was widely recognized for his strong commitment to ensuring equal opportunities for women and minorities in Business Enterprise Programs and increasing diversity in key leadership positions.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Jane; his three daughters, Jennifer, Leslie, and Judy; his grandchildren Austin, Stephanie and Kathleen; his sons-in-law Tom, Ken, and Scott; and many dogs and grand dogs.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Arrangements have been made by McCoy Funeral Home in Blacksburg, Virginia.