Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Employee Spotlight
During his day-long visit, Wally Griffin tries the desk of District Director Doug Failing on for size.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 07/2007

The "Wise Ol' Owl" of Caltrans Makes a Visit

Wallace (Wally) M. Griffin made a long-awaited trip back to the Caltrans District Office Building (DOB) recently, a place near and dear to his heart.  Even though the new state-of-the-art facility is not the same building as it was during his 37-year Caltrans career, the visit brought back many wonderful recollections that he shared with wife, Louise and daughter, Joan, who both accompanied him – and created new and lasting memories.

Griffin worked for Environmental Planning, as well as for the Division of Construction at a tunnel station near Newhall – and also in the Division of Design, concentrating on route design, among many other various projects.     
It had been 24 years since Griffin, now 85 years old and residing in Northern California, had seen the place where he began his career just after World War II.  During his May visit, he spent time reminiscing with members of the Executive Staff, including Raja Mitwasi, Chief Deputy District Director; Ron Kosinski, Deputy District Director for Environmental Planning; Tad Teferi, Deputy District Director for Program and Project Management; and Jim Hammer, Deputy District Director for Administration. 

Everyone was elated to see Griffin again.  Kosinski explained that Griffin was a very wise man who taught him a lot in the beginning of his career, and stated, “Wally Griffin was my mentor!  I learned so much from him in my early years.  We would spend hours in his office discussing really important Caltrans environmental issues.  And he became affectionately known by many as ‘the wise ol’ owl.’”  

Even as a young boy, Griffin always knew he wanted to design and build roads and bridges.  So, it was no surprise when he graduated from high school at age 16 that he entered the U.C. Berkeley School of Engineering (at age 17), and went directly into Civil Engineering.  He loved it ever since.  
World War II interrupted his education and Griffin went on to serve in the Navy Seabees throughout the Pacific Theater in the Construction Battalion.  After the war, he joined Caltrans (then called the Division of Highways) as a Senior Engineering Aide in 1946, coloring maps by hand in the downtown DOB.  “It was so very exciting then, when all the soldiers came home from the war and together had this vision of a network of freeways that connected all of California and the nation,” Griffin recollected.  “It was thrilling to see the vision begin to unfold as reality.” 

Some of the important projects he contributed to included:

• The Pomona Freeway (SR-60) from the East Los Angeles interchange to the San Bernardino County line
• Ronald Reagan Freeway (State Route 118) from 1st Street in Simi Valley to De Soto Ave in the San Fernando Valley
• Interstate 5, from Smokey Bear Road to Gorman
• Orange Freeway (State Route 57) from the Pomona Freeway to Foothill Freeway  (at that time, Orange County was part of District 7)
• And for five years before retirement, he served as the Bridge Manager for the Vincent Thomas Bridge project.

“Over the years,” Griffin explained, “times changed and environmental concerns altered the way business was done, but that too became interesting.  How to design and build with as little negative impact as possible, while at the same time solving human transportation problems as effectively as possible, was an interesting puzzle to solve and required a new perspective.”

One of the most interesting projects for him was the Antelope Valley Freeway (State Route 14) from I-5 into Kern County.  “It was not about figuring out how to build a freeway through a populated area, but rather through open areas, with numerous challenges of geography,” he noted.  “The design had to take the roadway through a variety of geographic obstacles, canyons, hills, valleys, moist meadows and dry flatlands, rivers and streambeds, but that it was the watercourses that were the most challenging.”

He also explained that because the land was so dry much of the year that the water was dried up in most places, but when winter and spring rains came, that changed radically.  He said, “Rivers overflowed their shallow beds, spilling out over very wide areas. Streams were created anew each year and you could never count on them being in the same place two years in a row.  During floods, water came quickly in huge volumes and moved fast, then disappeared just as quickly. Grassy meadows became swampy marshes.  The sand was unstable and often moved with the water’s flow…  Designing roadways that could cross those waterways was difficult.”
In 1983, Griffin retired after 37 years of devoted service.  Many who worked for and with Griffin thought him to be so wise, in fact, that upon his retirement, a large plaster owl sculpture was presented to him – a deeply meaningful memento which he still keeps on his front porch today.

Since retirement, he and Louise have traveled all over the United States, Canada and Europe.  Two special trips that were very special included viewing civil engineering feats he always wanted to see: the Panama Canal and parts of the original Erie Canal.  His most recent trip with Louise and Joan was the personally guided tour of the new DOB by Jim Hammer.  According to his daughter, Joan, he never questioned his choice of career and felt he was part of something important.  She added, “We would like to thank Mr. Hammer and Mario De Jesus, who helped coordinate our memorable visit.” 


Ron Kosinski, right, Deputy District Director for Environmental Planning, says Griffin was his mentor. Griffin, center, poses with Deputy District Directors, left to right: Jim Hammer, Ron Kosinski, Tad Teferi and Chief Deputy District Director Raja Mitwasi. This owl, a meaninful retirement memento from his colleagues at Caltrans, still sits on the porch of Wally Griffin in Northern California today. Griffin and his daughter, Joan, left and wife  Louise, right, get a close look at Downtown Los Angeles from ouitside the 4th floor of the District Office Building.