As a California Highway Patrol officer in San Luis Obispo County, Ernie Tripke had never heard of James Dean before Sept. 30, 1955.
But from that day forward, Tripke never quite escaped being asked about the day he responded to the two-car crash that took the life of the young Hollywood star at the rural junction of Highways 41 and 466 (now Highway 46) near Cholame.
Tripke, 88, one of two CHP officers who arrived at the scene of the crash, died of heart and lung problems Tuesday in a skilled nursing facility in San Luis Obispo, said his daughter, Julie Tripke.
On that September afternoon more than 55 years ago, the 24-year-old Dean and his 28-year-old German mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were on their way to a car race in Salinas.
They were driving west toward Paso Robles on Highway 466 shortly before 6 p.m. when an eastbound Ford driven by Donald G. Turnupseed, a 23-year-old student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, turned left onto Highway 41, and the cars collided.
Wuetherich was ejected from Dean’s mangled Porsche but survived the collision with a broken leg and jaw.
After Tripke and fellow CHP Officer Ron Nelson arrived at 6:20 p.m., Tripke walked over to Dean.
“I figured he had a broken neck,” Tripke recalled in a 2005 interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. “We weren’t qualified to say that he was deceased, but I think he was darn close to it.”
As Nelson directed traffic, photographed the two cars and paced off measurements for their report, Tripke interviewed Turnupseed and other witnesses.
Turnupseed, whom Tripke said had suffered “very minor injuries,” was not detained.
“He said he was making his turn,” Tripke recalled in the 2005 interview. “He just didn’t see Dean coming until the last, split second, and it was too late.”
At the time, Dean had starred in only one film: “East of Eden,” released five months earlier. “Rebel Without a Cause” came out the month after he was killed. And “Giant,” his final film, hit theaters in late 1956.
His death catapulted him into the realm of screen legend.
Tripke and Nelson received their first inkling of what they were dealing with soon after returning to the CHP substation in Paso Robles.
As Tripke recalled in the 2005 interview, “we couldn’t get to first base writing this report because of the telephones.” Calls “were coming in from all over the country about Dean.”
Julie Tripke said her father was constantly asked about the crash.
“He had people from all over the world — Germany and all sorts of places — contacting him,” she said. “Throughout his career, it became a little bit obnoxious for him. However, in the long run, I think … it was fine with him. I think he was tickled.”
When her father participated in a panel discussion on Dean sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in 2009, she said, he was asked for autographs and even signed James Dean license-plate replicas.
“I would tease him about it all the time,” she said of his small claim to fame. Even during his various hospital stays, she said, “the nurses and physical therapists would all want to know about James Dean.”
Tripke was born in Cleveland on Nov. 3, 1922. In the Navy during World War II, he worked as an airplane mechanic at an airfield in the San Francisco Bay Area. He joined the CHP in 1948 and retired as a captain in San Luis Obispo in late 1976.
In addition to his daughter Julie, he is survived by his wife of 65 years, Harriett; his other daughter, Barbara Lenahan; and two grandsons. A granddaughter died in 2009.