Jacob Dekema, who reshaped Southern California with hundreds of miles of freeway, dies at 101

Jacob Dekema, whose zeal for building freeways and vision for connecting the dots in Southern California reshaped the area’s transportation landscape, has died at the age of 101.

A former Caltrans district director, Dekema’s legacy was particularly visible in San Diego County, which had but 25 miles of freeway when he arrived in 1955. By the time he retired a quarter of a century later, there were 485 miles of interstate, connecting the beach to the island and opening up Mission Valley.

Dekema, who died April 16 from natural causes at an assisted living facility in La Jolla, was known affectionately as “Mr. Caltrans” for the hand he had in constructing the region’s intricate network of highways and connectors, an accomplishment often cited as helping inspire the nation’s interstate-highway system.

“He was an iconic figure in the San Diego region, and much of San Diego’s transportation history bears his fingerprints,” said Laurie Berman, the current district director for Caltrans in San Diego. “He was a one-of-a-kind.”

Tens of millions of federal transportation dollars went to California during Dekema’s tenure. After the money dried up, he often lamented what he saw as an unfinished system, never forgetting a list of freeways he would have liked to see extended.

During his years as director of Caltrans District 11, which then encompassed San Diego, Imperial and portions of Riverside counties, Dekema endured critics who said he constructed too many freeways, along with those who said he wasn’t moving fast enough.

Pamela Dekema remembered a news photo showing her father being hanged in effigy by community members affected by a highway project.

“I think he had a remarkable attitude considering what he must have faced,” she said. “I didn’t perceiving him as being stressed when he came home. He was a very patient person.”

As opposed to engineers who designed highly viable highways as aesthetic achievements, Dekema was known for attempting to lace his transportation system into the region’s network of canyons in an attempt to limit negative impacts on communities and skylines.

“He was the kind of the person who brought out the best in the people around him. Morale was very high under his leadership,” said Milton Costello, who worked for Caltrans as a transportation engineer from 1950 to 1993.

Dekema was born to Dutch parents on the island of Java in Indonesia. His father worked for several steamship companies, and the family moved frequently, living in Amsterdam, Vancouver, San Francisco and other cities before settling in Los Angeles.

In 1982, Interstate 805 in San Diego was named the Jacob Dekema Freeway. In honor of his 100th birthday, the California Transportation Foundation started the Dekema Scholarship for high school and college students aspiring to careers in transportation planning.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from USC in 1937 and went to work for Caltrans, at a time when the Pasadena Freeway — now known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway -- was being designed. In a USC retrospective, he said he was among those who lobbied for the narrow, winding highway to be six lanes rather than four.

“A lot of people said we would never need more than four lanes,” he said.

During World War II he served in the Navy and then returned to the transportation agency before landing in San Diego as the region’s Caltrans director.

“In the Caltrans circle, he’s revered as a legend,” said Gary Gallegos, a former Caltrans district director and currently executive director of the San Diego Assn. of Governments. “He’s the father of the freeway system we have in San Diego today.”

Besides his daughter, Dekema is survived by his wife, Shirley; a son, Douglas Dekema; a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.

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