William R. Ratliff: Engineer and Politician

Note: I wrote this “mini-biography,” which is part of an evolving series appearing on my website, to help inquisitive individuals of all ages learn more about engineering. We may know something about engineering because we frequently see or use the results of engineers’ efforts. Another way to learn about engineering is to meet some exemplary engineers. William R. Ratliff, engineer, state senator, Lt. Governor, and respected politician is an exemplary engineer. Read his story and, if you want to know more, use the sources listed at the end of this bio.

Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE
stu-walesh@comcast.net

Born in Texas in 1936, William Ratliff earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas, served as a city manager, and worked for over three decades as a consulting engineer.

Then he went in a rare direction for an engineer, relative to say lawyers, in that he was elected to the Texas State Senate in 1988 and served for 15 years—until 2003. His engineering and political work were recognized by being named a Distinguished Graduate of the University of Texas School of Engineering and being designated, five times, as one of Texas’ Best Legislators by Texas Monthly.

While in the Senate, Ratliff served as its President Pro Tempore from 1997 to 1998—presiding over the Senate in absence of the Lieutenant Governor or when the legislature was not in regular session. He also served for four years as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and four years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

In 2000, George W. Bush, then Texas Governor, moved on to become U.S. president. Rick Perry, the then Lieutenant Governor, succeeded Bush as governor, and the Texas Senate chose Ratliff to be the state’s 40th Lieutenant Governor. He held that position until 2003 when he left it and the Senate.1,2


Mr. and Mrs. William Ratliff placing his portrait in the Texas statehouse with
those of other former Lt. Governors. Source: Thomas Ratliff3

During Ratliff’s time in the Texas Senate, public education caught his attention. Therefore, “during his third legislative session, Ratliff completely rewrote Texas’ outdated public education code.” He saw a need to achieve more equitable school funding by moving funds from richer to poorer school districts. Ratliff took strong positions on maintaining adequate budgets and assuring adequate representation of rural voters.4,5 He also led rewriting of Texas tort law and reform of the state’s ethics legislation.6

Apply Our Intellect and Can-Do Attitude in New Directions

I met Bill Ratliff, in 2006, when we served on the External Advisory Committee of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Tyler. During a meeting break, he told me about how, when he entered the Senate, he knew little about public education funding. However, it interested him, so he studied the topic, understood it, and developed and led an improved path forward. While all of that did not surprise him, what did was being widely considered an expert on the subject. He said he simply applied logic.

See the lesson?

We engineers can bring intellect and a can-do attitude to any challenge, within or outside of engineering. Like engineer Bill Ratliff, let’s be open to going in new and potentially useful directions. The world will be better for it.

During his May 2005 acceptance speech for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, Ratliff bemoaned the state of politics. He asked, “Is it not a sad state of affairs that the courage for which I am being singled out consists of my decision to take positions in the best interest of my constituents in cases where those positions run counter to my political party?”7

In a published paper, Bill Ratliff urged engineers to get off the sidelines and become directly involved in politics. Recognizing that political participation is unusual for engineers, he shared this thought about his being elected Lieutenant Governor of Texas: “The good news is that a civil engineer was elected to the lieutenant governorship in the state of Texas. The bad news is that this is really news.” Back to encouraging engineers to weigh into the political process, Ratliff noted that wise people who shrink from government involvement are doomed to live under the government of unwise people.8

Wise, Accomplished, and Respected

“Bill Ratliff is the gray eminence of the Texas Senate,” declared President George W. Bush who went on to say, “A calm, ramrod-straight, low-key Southern gentleman affectionately known to his colleagues as Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the wise advisor in Star Wars.” A member of the press corps wrote, “He is a gentlemanly, no-nonsense, solution-oriented, moderate-conservative policy man, known for delivery [of] straightforward, honest judgements without frills and flourishes.”

He received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for “the example he set of courage and principle in American life.”9 Texas honored this accomplished engineer by developing the Bill Ratliff Engineering and Science Complex at the University of Texas at Tyler.10


Cited Sources

1. Texas, University of. 2019. “Academy of Distinguished Alumni.” Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering, http://www.caee.utexas.edu/alumni/academy/193-ratliff, accessed June 19, 2019.

2. Wikipedia. 2019. “Bill Ratliff.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Ratliff, accessed June 19, 2019.

3. Ratliff, Thomas. 2020. Son of William Ratliff, personal communication with author, December 17 and 18. About his parents, Thomas Ratliff said “They were together in everything and his accomplishments were their accomplishments.” 

4. Texas, University of. 2019. “Academy of Distinguished Alumni.”

5. Wikipedia. 2019. “Bill Ratliff.”

6. Sterken Jr., R. E. 2016. Bill Ratliff: A Profile of Courage and Leadership in American Politics. Lantham, MD: Lexington Books.

7. Ratliff, W. R. 2005. “Bill Ratliff Acceptance Speech for the John F. Kenney Profile in Courage Award.” May 16, https://www.jfklibrary.org/events-and-awards/profile-in-courage-award/award-recipients/bill-ratliff-2005, accessed June 19, 2019.

8. Ratliff, W. R. 2002. “Making Things Better.” Leadership and Management in Engineering, July, Reston, VA: ASCE, pp. 20-23.

9. Texas, University of. 2019. “Academy of Distinguished Alumni.”

10. Sterken Jr., R. E. 2016. Bill Ratliff: A Profile of Courage and Leadership in American Politics.

Note:  Want to learn more about engineer exemplars and engineering excellence? See Chapter 3 in my book Engineering’s Public-Protection Predicament.

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