“…When we worked all night to keep the road clear of snow and ice, I knew we made things safer for the public, our friends and families..” --John Poppe
Although the words in his job description have changed from ten-wheeler, Snogo and box spreaders to budgets, personnel, and public relations, John Poppe’s dedication to Caltrans has not wavered for almost 30 years.
“District 7 is fortunate to have his expertise and skills as the Region Manager for Maintenance in the scenic and challenging West Region, says Dan Freeman, Deputy District Director of the Maintenance Division. “John oversees, among other routes, Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu, State Route 33, Highway 101, which suffered the La Conchita landslide, Interstate 405 through Sepulveda Pass, an extensive area encompassing 1,436 lane-miles of interstate and rural roads in both Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.”
John Poppe (pronounced like California’s state flower: “poppy”) joined District 7 in August 2005 after a 15-year assignment conducting Headquarters’ Maintenance Pavement Condition Survey, that gave him, he says, an opportunity to witness firsthand state-wide pavement distress and the effectiveness of different repair and preventative maintenance strategies. Poppe’s Caltrans Maintenance experience includes four years as an Equipment Operator, a Leadworker for five, a supervisor for another five, eleven years as a Superintendent and three years as a Maintenance Manager 1.
“In my early days, job satisfaction was immediate, reflects Poppe. “At the end of the day, the effort was reflected in the quality of the road. When we paved, I knew we made the road better for everyone. When we cleared drainage, I knew the road would survive better in the winter. When we worked all night to keep the road clear of snow and ice, I knew we made things safer for the public, our friends and families. Today, job satisfaction is present, although not as immediate. Many of the benefits will be realized after my watch is over.”
His Caltrans career began in 1977 as a young Maintenance Worker in the Truckee yard, spending the summers flagging traffic for the crew, a task that inspired him to promote to operator as quickly as possible, he said. Two years later, he transferred to the Tahoe City Maintenance Station on Highway 89 as an Equipment Operator, finally getting his hands on the Snogo, graders, backhoes, 4-yard loader and ten-wheelers and other snow removal equipment.
Poppe still vividly remembers plowing snow all night, clearing the road so the school buses could run without chains and seeing the most spectacular sunrises over Tahoe. “What a great end to a long shift,” he recalls.
Poppe and his family were involved in the Tahoe community and with extra energy to spare, he was a volunteer firefighter and an Emergency Medical Technician. “I saw plenty of action fighting structure and forest fires. The most satisfying part of being a firefighter was responding to ambulance calls. One evening, as part of the CPR team, we brought a victim, who was also a neighbor, back to life. It’s a great feeling to make a save,” he said.
Poppe returned to the Truckee Maintenance Station in 1981 as a Heavy Equipment Operator and supervisor of the winter graveyard crew. For the next five years, he coordinated an 18-person paving operation for three summers in Tahoe City, where as the Maintenance Leadworker, he planned and directed work in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“Tahoe is a challenging place for maintenance work,” advises Poppe. “Its heavy summer traffic creates a small window in the fall for paving and sealing that kept our team working hard. In those days, we cleaned all of our own drains. I knew exactly where they were and made sure they were all cleaned before winter. It only takes is one big rainstorm to realize drains have to work or you’ll be out there on dark, cold, stormy nights trying to make them work.”
His management of the drainage issues in Tahoe’s environmentally sensitive community led him to a supervisory career in Caltrans’ San Francisco East Bay Region (Walnut Creek) in 1986. In District 4, Poppe along with a nine-person crew developed a safe and efficient ice-plant fertilization distribution process that helped with the high-density functional landscape along the I-680 freeway and State Routes 24 and 242.
During the mid-‘80s, his passion with computers grew and he was appointed Region Computer Coordinator, at which time he distributed the first computers to the regional supervisors with the foresight of how helpful they would be for field work.
While working on a severe hazardous materials spill on I-580, Poppe recalls, “We closed the road, CHP set up a command post and we worked through the night to clean it up. Our region just purchased a laptop computer, which I used to keep narratives up to date. That was such a big step forward.”
In 1990, after five years in the East Bay, Poppe moved to the Sacramento Headquarters as the Coordinator of the Pavement Condition Survey and he rewrote the evaluation manual and training course. Over the next 15 years, the survey was revised from a paper-based system to a fully electronic data collection operation.
“I am proud to work with the fine people in this District, who are some of the most skilled and dedicated people I have worked with,” says Poppe. “It’s an honor to be associated with them.”
On a personal note, Poppe says that he and his wife enjoy taking other Caltrans roads that lead to Southern California’s museums and attractions. “Our children are fully-fledged, as my wife and I say, and we are free again. We enjoy weekends experiencing The Huntington, The Getty and the Palm Springs Tram…all the unique places that make Southern California special.”