Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
After 52 years of professionalism and  dedication, Paul Perez can always be found working carefully and thoroghly on important transportation improvement projects.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 04/2008

Three long-term employees kindly give personal glimpses into their lifetimes of dedicated Caltrans state service.

More than anything, Caltrans is about people.  They are the diverse and talented employees who understand the importance of excellent customer service, whether to internal or external customers.  They work daily within the many disciplines of the Department with people from other agencies of government, private industry, universities, citizens groups and each other, to ensure that all of the pieces of California’s transportation network operate together.  The following long-term employees, who have given virtually a lifetime of Caltrans service, share their interesting and varied, and sometime similar experiences.

This is Part Two of a two-part series on seven of Caltrans' District 7 long-term employees and retired annuitants.  Here are the stories of three people who have given us personal glimpses into their lifetime of dedicated State service to District 7. 


When Dave Gilstrap was in high school in the early 1950's, he spent his summers preparing for what became his career with the Division of Highways, later named Caltrans, by working under a Temporary Authorization (TAU) appointment in District 5, San Luis Obispo.  (In those days there was no Student Assistant Program, as there is now.).  His summers were spent working on a survey party primarily on the conversion of U. S. 101 from a two-lane rural highway to a four-lane freeway in the Paso Robles area.  Little did he know at the time, but what he learned during those summers helped lay a solid foundation for his future engineering career. 

After high school, Gilstrap enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley where he went on to receive his Civil Engineering degree.  This led back to the Division of Highways when he was hired in 1957 in the Sacramento office of the Bridge Department (now known as the Division of Structures).  After joining the Bridge Department, he worked on highway construction projects in northern California.  Some of the more noteworthy projects were construction of the Interstate 80 Freeway across the High Sierras and the building of the Webster Street Tube, an underwater tunnel between the cities of Oakland and Alameda. 

After a break to employment in private industry, Gilstrap returned to California State Service with the Department of Water Resources from 1964 to 1968 in Program Control working on the California Aqueduct.  He then returned in 1968 to the Bridge Department in Southern California where he worked for about 4 1/2 years.  "This period was nearing the end of what is considered the freeway construction era," Gilstrap said.

In 1972, he transferred to District 7 where he remained until his official retirement in December 2001.  During those years, Gilstrap worked in Hydraulic Design, Programs and Budgets (now known as Program Management), Right-of-Way, Project Development, Traffic Operations and LARTS (Los Angeles Regional Transportation Study).  While in Project Development he was the Design Engineer for the east portion of the Century Freeway (I-105), and the Harbor Freeway (I-110) Transitway, as well as the Southern Area Traffic Engineer.  Some of his other noteworthy projects were: planning the reconstruction of damaged bridges after the 1969 San Fernando Earthquake, principally the I-5/SR-14 Interchange; establishing detours after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake; and planning work on the El Monte Busway on the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) in the early 1970’s.

Gilstrap said he has had a very interesting career.  "I've worked in every major functional discipline of Caltrans, except for Maintenance," he said.  "And what is great about Caltrans is that so many aspects of Civil Engineering work are all here within the same organization."

After his retirement in 2001, Gilstrap began working as a retired annuitant in Advance Planning in 2005, where he is now working on the regional model for traffic forecasting and long-range plans for District 7.  "Dave Gilstrap is a very skilled, competent and professional individual," said his Supervisor Elhami Nasr.  "He has a lifetime of experience in just about every aspect of Caltrans work."

Thank you, Dave Gilstrap, for a lifetime career of professionalism and dedication to public service.


Paul Perez came to California from Texas when he was 13 years old.  In high school, he belonged to many scholastic achievement clubs, organizations and honor societies. 
Just before graduation, one of his teacher's gave Perez a State of California employment announcement for Engineering Aide I.  The exam was to be the day after graduation.  He took the written test, passed, was interviewed and he began working with the Division of Highways on April 21, 1958 right out of Belmont High School in Los Angeles. 

Perez worked at Caltrans until his retirement on April 1, 2005, except for his United States Marine Corps military leave.  Then he joined the Reserves and retired from the Marine Corps Reserve after serving 26 years.  After retirement he returned as an annuitant and continues to work diligently for the Office of Advance Planning today.  “I love it!,” Perez said.  “I have always thought of the Department of Transportation as my family.” 

During his career, Perez worked in Traffic Investigations, in Construction as an Inspector, and later in Surveying and Materials Testing.  After working 20 years in Design A, B, & C and in Plans, Specifications and Estimates (PS&E) Review Branch, he also became the District Training Officer. 

Perez also went on to work as the Special Projects Engineer (Supervisor) for Project Development.  He was also in charge of Consultant Services Contracts.  From there, he went to work in the Civil Rights Office working on the Century Freeway (I-105).  He also worked in Design on the I-105 Freeway and on the initial freeway design of  the Pomona Freeway (SR-60) and the Antelope Valley Freeway (SR-14).  He then went to work in Intergovernmental Review (IGR) Branch reviewing projects for environmental compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, both State and Federal regulations.   From there, he went on to the Office of Advance Planning and ultimately retired, with 47 years to his credit, on April 1, 2005 as a Senior Transportation Planner, Supervisor/Branch Chief. 

During the 1980's Perez was selected as a member of the Caltrans Affirmative Action Committee, was selected as Floor Warden for Emergency Evacuation of State and was certified by the Personnel Board to Chair Oral Examinations. 

During his employment with Caltrans, Paul earned his AA, BS, JD and several certificates from various colleges and universities, including a Certificate in Transportation Planning.  He also completed his studies for a Masters in Management – and accomplished all of this at night.   He also taught Supervisors’ Workshop for Caltrans and for the State Personnel Board-sponsored Supervisors' Workshops for other State Agencies.  

"Paul Perez really cares for the Caltrans family," added his Supervisor Elhami Nasr.  "We are fortunate that he continues to contribute his experience and time --sometimes even his own personal time -- for the benefit of Caltrans.  His knowledge, professionalism and dedication goes above and beyond the call of duty."

Paul has two sons, Jose Sahagun Perez, 38 and Paulo Sahagun Perez, 28.  His hobbies include playing the guitar and harmonica.   

“The real pleasure comes when people that worked under me excel,” he said.  And his advise to new employees is, “Take Pride in what you do now and when you walk out there, remember, You are Caltrans!"   Paul continues to serve his community and remains active in numerous organizations.   

Thank you Paul Perez, for your leadership and lifetime of dedication to State service.


In 1964, Ralph Thunstrom had just been hired at Caltrans and was assigned to the field Survey Crew as a Engineering Aide II.  He was assigned to the San Gabriel River Freeway (I-605) project in Rossmore -- tying it into the San Diego Freeway (I-405).  During his early years, he also was involved in the Artesia Freeway (SR-91) project in Cerritos, as well as the SR-134/I-210/I-710 interchange project in Pasadena.  His duties included field surveys, office calculations and some design work. 

After nine years, Thunstrom transferred to Project Development and worked on projects involving the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10).  Two years later, he accepted a position in Traffic where he spent most of his time working on loop detector projects, ramp meters and performing traffic studies.   He was also a valuable member of the Major Incident Response Team, whose members respond quickly to major accidents or incidents around the clock.

In 1980, about four years later, Thunstrom transferred to Environmental Investigations where he began performing field work having to do with noise and vibration impacts -- which also included noise studies and reports, air quality studies, computer modeling and more.  He spent the next 28 years doing this type of important environmental investigation work.
During those years, Thunstrom said that he worked on several noteworthy projects.  Some of them included his contributions to the Harbor Freeway (I-110) Transitway, the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) Extension and the Foothill Freeway (I-210) Extension Project.  Also memorable was the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, when he performed noise measurements during reconstruction efforts.  "This was an around-the-clock operation," he said.   "We were out there often working in the middle of the night."  

During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Thunstrom was a helicopter observer with Traffic Operations.  He said members of his team would fly out of Los Alamitos Naval Air Station and they would watch closely for traffic incidents that might impede mobility or cause delays during the Olympic Games.  He said everything ran relatively smoothly until the very last day of the Olympics, when a major accident on the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) caused a large fire which ignited a gas tank.  "As we flew over the incident, the explosion was so intense, we could actually feel the shock waves in the helicopter," he said.  His team was there when it happened and were responsible for calling the Los Angeles Fire Department for help.  Thunstrom said that it was a real team effort.  "Working during the Olympics was amazing," he added.  "Our Caltrans team was involved in briefings with the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Department and many others.  And traffic was so much lighter during that time due to such a great team effort."  He said the Caltrans staff had access to the LAPD Piper Center off of the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) as well.  In total, he spent 127 hours in the air during that effort. 

Over the years, Thunstrom said that some of the biggest changes in his work has to do with computers.  "Years ago, we had to look up the trigonometric functions in tables and we used mechanical calculators and slide rules," he explained.  "The computer and the Computer Aided Design (CAD) system have been such major advances for the kind of work we do today."

Working for Caltrans has also been a family affair for the Thunstrom family.  His son works in District 8 Construction; his daughter was once a Student Assistant; and his late wife, Gail, worked formerly in Districts 7 and 12.  Thunstrom is still actively employed, working full-time as an Associate Transportation Engineer, reviewing a lot of consulting work.   He has not set his plans for retirement at this time.

"Ralph was under my supervision in the Noise and Vibration Branch for the past seven years," said his supervisor, Office Chief Jin Lee.  "He has been and will continue to be a critical part of the team in successful delivery of the projects.”  Lee also explained that Thunstrom’s expertise is always helping to mentor new employees.  “Ralph also provided mentorship to many new and young staff that came or went through Noise & Vibration Branch,” added Lee.  “With his tremendous amount of experience, knowledge and institutional memory in the field of noise and vibration, he has been and will continue to be a great asset to not only to Noise and Vibration Branch but also to the Department." 

Reflecting upon his years at the Department, Thunstrom also said that Caltrans is one of the most diverse organizations in the world.  "We are a fantastic group of people," he added.  "And everyone is working together to Improve Mobility Across California."

Thank you, Ralph Thunstrom, for your dedication to the Caltrans mission – for your mentoring skills and your valuable contributions for the safety of the motoring public.

Known for 44 years of skill and competency in many disciplines of Caltrans, today Dave Gilstrap can be found performing important work as a retired annuitant in Advance Planning. Left: On October 3, 1969, Ralph Thunstrom poses with his co-workers from Engineering Services; and right, after 39 years, Thunstrom continues to be a great asset, not only to the Noise and Vibration Branch, but also to the entire Department.