Marilyn J. Reece, 77; State’s First Licensed Female Civil Engineer

Times Staff Writer

Marilyn Jorgenson Reece, the first woman in California to be registered as a civil engineer and the designer of the San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange in Los Angeles, has died. She was 77.

Reece died Saturday at home in Hacienda Heights after a long illness, said her daughter, Anne Bartolotti.

A South Dakota native who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1948, Reece moved to Los Angeles with her parents shortly after graduation. The same year, she went to work for the State Division of Highways, which later became Caltrans, as a junior civil engineer in Los Angeles.


Later asked why she had studied civil engineering in college, Reece said: “Well, I like mathematics and I didn’t want to be a teacher.”

In 1954, after six years of required experience to sit for the Professional Engineer’s Exam, Reece became the state’s first fully licensed female civil engineer.

In 1962, she received the Governor’s Design Excellence Award from Gov. Pat Brown for the San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange.

Shortly after, Reece became the Division of Highway’s first woman resident engineer for construction projects.

The three-level San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange, which opened in 1964, was the first interchange designed in California by a woman engineer.

Urban critic Reyner Banham, author of “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” admired the “wide-swinging curved ramps” connecting the two freeways.


“It is more customary to praise the famous four-level [interchange in downtown Los Angeles],” he wrote, but the I-10 and 405 interchange “is a work of art, both as a pattern on the map, as a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it.”

Reece told The Times in 1995 that she put her “heart and soul into it” and that she designed the interchange with aesthetics in mind.

“It is very airy. It isn’t a cluttered, loopy thing,” she said, adding that specifications to keep traffic moving at high speeds necessitated the long, sweeping curves. “That was so you didn’t have to slam on the brakes, like you do on some interchanges.”

Reece’s daughter said she has a 1962 picture of her mother standing on top of a graded hill with construction of the freeway interchange in the background

“It’s amazing that all that was happening and she was pregnant with her second child,” said Bartolotti, who was born in April 1963. “With both my sister and me, when she came back from maternity leave, everyone was surprised because at that particular time as a woman in the work force, once you started having kids your career was over and you stayed home.”

While growing up, Bartolotti recalled, “It wasn’t uncommon for my sister and me to talk about what our mom did for a profession, and people wouldn’t even believe us. Back in those days, if you were a woman in the work force you were a nurse or a teacher or something along those lines and you certainly weren’t a civil engineer.”

In a 1963 story on “lady engineers” in a California Highways and Public Works publication, Reece said she felt that women had an advantage in the field of engineering and “if there’s any prejudice toward women, I’ve not encountered it. Men have always been very helpful; and being a woman has never hampered me in my career.”

During her 35-year career, Reece’s projects included serving as senior engineer for the completion of the 210 Freeway through Sunland in 1975 -- at the time the largest construction project Caltrans had ever awarded, at $40 million.

After retiring in 1983, Reece taught engineering classes at Cal State Long Beach.

During Women’s History Month in 1983, the Los Angeles City Council honored Reece for making significant contributions to the city. In 1991, she received life membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers.

When she and her sister were growing up, Bartolotti said, their mother “always told us we could be whatever we wanted as long as we worked for it.” Bartolotti, a Covina resident, works for Los Angeles County as an information technology manager; her sister, Kirsten Stahl of Hacienda Heights, followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a civil engineer for Caltrans.

Stahl recalled that as a child, “we sat around the table and listened to all the conversations. All my toys were engineer-related -- Lego bricks, Lincoln Logs and Tonka trucks. We’d go to the beach and I’d build dams and roads and ‘public work’ sandcastles. So that’s what we were exposed to.”

Her mother, Stahl said, “was definitely an inspiration. We saw this strong person do a man’s job and so there was really nothing that we felt we could not do.”

In addition to her two daughters, Reece is survived by her husband of 47 years, Alvin; a sister, Shirley Peterson of Victorville; and two grandsons.

Funeral services will be private; a public memorial is being planned. Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to a favorite charity.