At 92, Shirley Norris is Missouri's oldest full-time state employee — and doesn't plan to retire
Norris manages projects worth millions of dollars at the Missouri Department of Transportation, where she's worked for 45 years.
Shirley Norris is 92 years old and has no plans to retire any time soon.
That makes Norris, a project manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation, the oldest full-time government employee in the state. Currently, Norris is slated to manage 46 projects between 2023 and 2027, totaling more than $190 million.
She says working 40 hours a week, and often more, suits her.
“It ain't broke,” she said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So I'm not trying to fix it.”
Norris manages projects in Jefferson and Franklin counties and right now, she’s adding lanes and improvements to I-55. At this point in her 45-year career at MoDOT, she’s trained many of her bosses. She’s straightforward, fueled by “Cheetos, cookies and coffee” and rarely arrives at work after 6:30 a.m.
“I'm hooked on Cheetos,” she said. “And [coworkers] bring me Cheetos, bless their hearts, on regular occasions.”
Originally from south St. Louis, Norris was one of the first female engineering students at Vanderbilt University. Her dad, who managed a salvage yard, was intent on his only child getting the education he lacked. He paid her college tuition and became one of her biggest supporters.
Norris graduated in 1951, but it took nearly 30 years before she became a full-time engineer. At first, she was a stay-at-home mom and learned how to ride horses from ranchers while living in Colorado. But when her husband was killed by a drunk driver in the 1970s, she suddenly became a single mother.
For awhile, she was fine financially, which she credits to her husband’s many insurance policies. But after her kids went off to college, she wanted to work — and needed the money. After some private firms rejected her résumé, she said MoDOT took a chance and hired her. Back then, she said, female engineers were still rare.
“I've never forgotten that,” she said. “I've always been obligated to them. They gave me a chance. They were patient with me. And I turned into having a passion for doing the job.”
By the time she arrived at MoDOT, she said any sexism she encountered “went off me like water off a duck’s back.” Instead, she said she focused on her work.
Every day Norris wears a starfish pin to work. It’s from an old adage that reminds her she can make a difference in people’s lives — one washed-up starfish at a time.
“If you don't see this pin on me,” she said, “I've forgotten it. But I keep one at the office just in case.”
At this point, she joked, her children almost think she loves her job more than them. But she doesn’t — she just doesn’t have anything better to do.
“If I couldn’t work, I would be walking up one wall and down the other,” she said.
Norris takes her job seriously, so if her health did start to fail she would have no problem passing the baton and retiring. She said she’s instructed her bosses to be direct with her if she can no longer handle the work.
“I'm paid with taxpayers' money,” she said. “If I'm not producing, somebody needs to tell me so.”
Her next goal is to make it at least two more years. That way she can hit another milestone: spending half her life at MoDOT.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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