Distinguished Member Jacob Dekema, a World War II veteran and former San Diego Section president who supervised the postwar boom of freeway construction in and around San Diego, has died at 101.
As supervisor of the state transportation department’s District 11 from 1955 to 1980, Dekema was able to carry out an early vision for San Diego that shapes it to this day. Family, friends and peers called him Jake, but he also became known as “Mr. Caltrans” for his work overseeing design and construction of the region’s intricate network of highways and connectors. During his tenure, Dekema ushered in 95 percent of the freeway miles that exist today in San Diego, Imperial, and eastern Riverside counties. His designs helped inspire work on 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, Caltrans’ current San Diego district director, in a San Diego Union Tribune interview.
Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments and a former Caltrans district director, told the paper Dekema was “the father of the freeway system we have in San Diego today.”
Dekema went to work for Caltrans in 1937 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with top honors from the University of Southern California. With the onset of World War II, he put his young career on pause to volunteer as a U.S. Navy officer. He returned to Caltrans in 1946 and worked on projects around the state before settling in San Diego in the early ’50s.
Milton Costello, who worked for Caltrans as a transportation engineer from 1950 to 1993, told the Union Tribune, “He was the kind of the person who brought out the best in the people around him. Morale was very high under his leadership.”
In 1982, a portion of Interstate 805 was named the Jacob Dekema Freeway. In honor of his 100th birthday, the California Transportation Foundation started a Dekema Scholarship for high school and college students aspiring to careers in transportation planning.
An ASCE Life Member, Dekema served as president of the San Diego Section in 1974. Other memberships included the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists, the Military Officers Association of America, and the Military Order of the World Wars. He was also a Master Mason.