Tomorrow, we bid goodbye to a long-time friend of DOT. George Hay has been with the Federal Highway Administration for only 37 years. But, at the age of 94, he is retiring anyway.
When I asked him why he decided to walk away now, after all these years, he told me, "Well, someone I knew died recently, and I suddenly realized life is short."
George smiled at me like he knew what I was thinking--that a 94-year-old is hardly testament to life's brevity--so he added, "I have a few things I want to do."
Whatever George chooses to do next, it's difficult to imagine it exceeding his already notable career as an actor--the only DOT employee I know who's listed on www.imdb.com--and as a public servant.
As anyone at DOT who knows him will tell you, George's first love was acting. From Johnstown, PA, where he knew Jimmy Stewart and where one of his high school teachers was Gene Kelly, he went to New York City to pursue a theater career. There, he landed a role in a play starring Helen Hayes and went on to a long run in "Inherit The Wind."
He also began accumulating film roles, appearing along the way in such movies as Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" with Cary Grant and "Being There" with Peter Sellers. He even did a turn as the Speaker of the House (does that mean he outranks me?) in "The Contender" with Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen. His resume, so far, includes over 100 feature films.
I asked him how he found the time during his 55 years of federal service to act in all of these movies. He told me he devoted his annual leave to film shoots, that movie-making was his idea of a vacation.
But he also mentioned taking a long trip across the country on America's highways and visiting our National Parks.
"Teddy Roosevelt, he had this idea that seemed so crazy," George says about the founding of our National Park network, "But it turned out to be pretty smart, and these places are our real national treasure."
George's federal career began in 1956 when he joined the Defense Department's Army Pictorial Center in Astoria, NY. "In those days, the Army actually had the biggest soundstage on the East Coast," recalls George. "We made mostly training and recruiting films."
One of George's jobs--in addition to writing, directing, acting, and camera work--was hiring actors to narrate and perform in these films. And over the years, George hired many of our most famous screen personalities: Paul Newman ("Very personable"), Henry Fonda ("Nice sense of humor"), and Ronald Reagan ("What a personality!").
In 1973, he joined DOT here in Washington, DC, working in FHWA as a film producer and director.
His eyes light up when he remembers those early FHWA years: "Through the 1980s, we had a bright orange car with cameras mounted here and there. And we drove around the country taking film of road construction and scenery and foliage. I loved being out there."
Of course, I was particularly pleased to hear George relate the early days of our highway system to our developing high-speed rail network:
"We spent a lot of time documenting the construction of the Interstates--we have General Eisenhower to thank for that back in the beginning. You know, they didn't really know where it was going beyond the first handful of highways. Now, I'm glad to hear we're doing it again with high-speed trains. I go to New York a lot--always take the train--and I think it's another great idea."
George has also become FHWA's unofficial historian, perhaps because he's been with DOT almost since its inception. He's written numerous articles about DOT, FHWA, and America's highways. In his 37 years with DOT, his fascinating work has effectively chronicled the development of our modern transportation system.
You know, it's one thing to possess a wealth of information; it's quite another to be able to communicate that information. George's ability to harness his vast insider knowledge of US transportation and convey it to the reading and viewing public has been exceptional, and valuable.
There is no adequate way to thank someone for 55 years of federal service. All I can say is that George has truly distinguished himself as a dedicated public servant, and we appreciate his many contributions.
George, we'll miss you, but I suspect your retirement from DOT just means we'll be seeing more of you on the big screen in the years to come.