Throwback Thursday: The Arizona Highway Department’s first female engineer

Throwback Thursday: The Arizona Highway Department’s first female engineer

May 30, 2019

By Angela De Welles / ADOT Communications

Even though it happened more than six decades ago, Frances Walker can still recall her introduction to the Arizona Highway Department.

It was 1956 and she was preparing to graduate from the University of Arizona with a civil engineering degree when a supervisor from the Highway Department’s new Engineer-in-Training program gave a presentation to the college’s American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter.

Walker was there and liked what she heard.  She asked for an application only to be told that the Engineer-in-Training program was “designed for men.” She remembers the program supervisor saying he didn’t think the State Highway Commission would hire a woman engineer.

She decided to apply anyway.

“I was very interested in the EIT program,” said Walker, adding that because she was a student at UofA, a school supported by Arizonans, she felt like she owed something back to the state and wanted to work for the Arizona Highway Department.

So, it’s a good thing the supervisor was wrong.

Walker doesn’t know how it happened – she imagines that maybe one of the highway commissioners had a daughter – but she was accepted into the program, becoming the first woman ever employed by the Arizona Highway Department as an engineer.


For the next 22 years, she continued working for the department. By the time she left in 1978, the Arizona Highway Department had become ADOT, and Walker was the agency’s design engineer for the District 2 Design Section, which at the time was part of the Tucson District Engineer's office. According to Walker, her duties included “designing highways and supervising the fellows.”

Today, Walker lives in Tucson and is very active in the community, volunteering her time to many causes. Just last year, she was inducted into the University of Arizona’s Engineering Hall of Fame, an honor that she says came as a surprise.

Looking back, Walker has fond memories of her years working for the state and remembers the numerous projects she helped design in southern Arizona, including State Route 77.

Walker earned several honors throughout her career, including being named “Engineer of the Year” in 1973 by the southern chapter of the Arizona Society of Professional Engineers. She was the first woman to receive the award. When it comes to her profession, she recalls some of the technology that was available during her early days at the department.


“It’s much easier now with computers because you have programs to figure (calculations) out for you,” she said.

Back then, the engineers worked with large mechanical calculators. But the calculators couldn’t do it all – there was a big book of trigonometry tables that always needed to be referred to, Walker remembers. Eventually, the office did get a computer, though it was the size of a large desk, Walker said.

Technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed since 1956. Society and the engineering profession have evolved, and Walker is happy to see so many women in the engineering field today.

She said she enjoys driving over the highways that helped to design and reminisces about her years at the Arizona Highway Department/ADOT.

“I think we just had a very good group of people in those days,” Walker said.