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Donald C. Tillman

Portrait of Donald C. Tillman with text reading Donald C. Tillman City Engineer (1972-1982)

Donald C. Tillman is a rarity in the long line of Los Angeles City Engineers. He is a "Native Son" to Los Angeles. While biographical material is somewhat sketchy on some of his predecessors, only Fred Eaton was also born in Los Angeles.

Mr. Tillman attended Fremont High School where he won scholastic honors, was a 3-year letterman in football and track, and was Student Body President. As a student at the California Institute of Technology, he continued to win scholastic honors (Tau Beta Pi, Engineering Honor Society), display athletic leadership, and again became Student Body President. Here, he received both his B.S. and M.S. degree in Civil Engineering. His graduate work occurred after serving in the Civil Engineer Corps of the U.S. Navy during World War II.

After doing some private survey work in New Jersey, and a 6-month Job Engineer assignment for a major freeway contractor, he joined City service in November 1947, as a Civil Engineering Assistant in the Bureau of Engineering. He was promoted to Civil Engineer in 1952 and to Senior Civil Engineer and Assistant District Engineer in 1955.

In 1960, he became the youngest, and only civil servant, appointee to the Board of Public Works Commission, named by then Mayor Norris Poulson and subsequently retained on the Board by Mayor Sam Yorty. He served 1 1/2 years as a Commissioner and as President of the Board of Public Works before accepting a Civil Service promotion and returning to the Bureau of Engineering as Chief Deputy City Engineer.

In 1972, he was promoted to City Engineer. In his incumbency, he supervised the public works management of professional design and construction for highways, storm drains, bridges, treatment plants, and sewer systems in Los Angeles, which had become the nation's second largest city (1980 census). He was perhaps the most involved City Engineer the City has ever had in state and national public works policy and professional societies.

He directed a work force of more than 1,200 personnel with an annual budget of $30 million, primarily salaries.

Mr. Tillman was recognized as a national leader in civil and municipal engineering and had a part in either the design or management of every major engineering project and program in the explosive Los Angeles growth that coincided with his career He led or shared in the development of the Los Angeles sewer, storm drain, street, freeway, and bridge systems. His organization was known for the magnitude, diversity, and continuity of public service experience in the engineering of transportation, wastewater, structures, surveying and mapping; this capability is unique in the United States. He was a forceful advocate of water reclamation, energy recovery from sludge, and the updating of the engineering profession in innovative and systems approaches. His highly effective efforts of minimizing departmental red tape and dramatically increasing operational efficiency, while not sacrificing totally effective controls, attracted national recognition. His supervision of design and construction of projects to completion has attracted international respect, and fast-gathering visits of engineers from other countries as well as other states were a fairly common occurrence in his office.

He was President or Chairman of numerous organizations and committees: American Society of Civil Engineers, American Public Works Association, Metropolitan Transportation Engineering Board, and the Nation Institute for Municipal Engineers. He was appointed by former Governor Ronald Reagan and later appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the State Federal Aid Urban (FAU) Committee, which sets state policies for this important transportation program.

The following awards symbolize the strong, respected professional organization he lead of over 1,200 engineers, surveyors, and technicians:

  • Many Project Awards (1973-?)
  • National Top Ten Public Works Leader (1977)
  • Engineer of Merit (Institute for the Advancement of Engineering) (1977 and 1981)
  • City and County Magazine's "Man of the Year - 1977"
  • "Engineer of the Year - 1979" (San Fernando Valey Engineers Council)
  • "Omni Award - 1979" - (SFVEC)
  • Honorary Member of the American Public Works Association's Institute of Municipal Engineers - 1979
  • 1980 "City (of Los Angeles) Employee of the Year"

His forces are assisting in the engineering and construction growth of the Harbor and International Airport, including expansion to Ontario and Palmdale. The coordination, development, operation, and maitenance of the need for regional system of freeways and streets, channels and bridges, storm drains and sewers, placed the City Engineer in a key role of responsibility. The challenge of commerce, housing travel, pollution, and safety from disaster continues to require attention, and new methods of recording and preserving maps and records, use of computers and computer graphics, are evolving.

Another major undertaking was the highly innovative work done on surveying and leveling the Palmdale Bulge in conjunction with the Federal Government, as a scientific aid to earthquake prediction along the San Andreas Fault.

Under Bureau of Engineering direction, a Disaster Manual has been compiled treating with ways to control and alleviate the aftermaths of fires, floods, and earthquakes. Design Manuals have been created for guidance, and workshops encourage landscaping, art, and aesthetica approaches iin project design. Uniquely under Tillman’s leadership, a new awareness developed for the artistic phase of public works construction an involvement in community concern for ecological impacts or historical preservation.

Environmental Impact and total systems engineering concepts have been formulated and actively utilized. The Bureau of Engineering was reorganized for better management and functional expansion as needed. Professional standards of employees is at the highest degree as attested by the fact that 600 civil engineers, architects, and surveyors have proficiency licenses and 200 have advanced engineering degrees.

Mr. Tillman and his wife, Doris (of Clifton, New Jersey) whom he met while in the Navy, made their home in Sherman Oaks. They had a son, Donald C. Tillman, Jr., who is a dentist in Eugene, Oregon and a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles Dental School.

During the career of Donald C. Tillman, the City of Los Angeles emerged as a metropolis of national prominence and with an international destiny. The engineering design and public works construction and operations became models for others. The future for Los Angeles and the City Engineer looks in the direction of third-dimensional growth and density, and new approaches to pollution control, energy, and waste treatment and disposal.

Mr. Tillman was an eloquent speaker and delivered many speeches and papers over the years. He was an advocate of high standards of professional engineering and ethical conduct. He also advocated advanced degrees to keep pace wit rapidly developing techniques and technology and supported professional registration to maintain the highest proficiencies of engineering.

He was an active naval reservist for 35 years and held the rank of Captain. His assignments included those of Regimental Commodore of all Reserve Seabees (Naval Construction Battalion Forces) in the Southwest, Reserve Naval Facilities Construction Forces in the Western United States, Battalion and Division Commanding Officer.

Acknowledged as a national leader in Transportation and Wastewater Management, he served over two years on the National Environmental Protection Agency Management Advisory Group and on the American Public Works Association Task Forces studying Energy, Natural Disaster Preparedness, and Intergovernmental Relations. This work became increasingly important as local government controls gave way to the demands federally funded and regulated programs.

It’s a far cry today from the fumbling growth of the city in 1855.  Today’s city grows almost an unbelievable pace and city engineering efforts not only must meet all growth needs but anticipate them. The Los Angeles-Glendale Water Reclamation Plant, now complete, was planned and constructed long before increased population and drought years threatened water shortages.

Other far-seeing projects developed primarily under the management of Mr. Tillman are currently being designed, constructed or expanded. These are at the Terminal Island Treatment Plant with its radical egg-shaped sludge digesters, the renewal of the Hyperion Treatment Plant to improved effluent treatment levels and a conversion of sludge ocean discharge to a recycling for energy production (the Hyperion Energy Recovery System), and the Sepulveda Water Reclamation Plant. The Latter is a 20-year old dream, under construction, which symbolizes the upstream reclamation of wastewater for reuse.

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