My Hero

by LeeAnn Dickson

  • My Hero

    LeeAnn Preece Dickson Mud Hop Bayshore Yard 1976

  • My Hero

    Walter Lee Preece Locomotive Engineer San Francisco 1956

On August 11, 1973, my father Walter Lee Preece, aged 48 years, died unexpectedly. He was a 26-year veteran of the Southern Pacific Railroad, rising from Locomotive Fireman to General Road Foreman of Engines. He was the son of an engineer.

Growing up, our family followed my dad on his career path as he took promotions. We lived near San Francisco where my dad worked as an engineer running steam engines, and then helped make the change to diesel locomotives on the Peninsula Commute Fleet. He was then promoted to Assistant Road Foreman and we spent a year in Ogden, Utah, moved for two years to El Paso,Texas, when he became a Road Foreman. Four years followed in Tucson, Arizona, and two more in Indio, California.

Finally, we moved back to San Francisco where he managed the Commutes. He then was promoted to General Road Foreman of the Western Division working out of Oakland. In every location, terminal, and yard office, he was very popular and loved by his employees and fellow officials.

My dad was a great man and I loved him unconditionally. He truly was my hero. He was passionate about his family, the railroad, and golf. Although his job took him out of town and away from home a lot, he always made time for me. In the days of SP passenger trains, just the two of us would travel to visit his mom living near Los Angeles. These train trips were special since the employees knew my dad and they took great measures to make sure I was always entertained and happy. He sometimes would disappear, I later found out to ride the headend; however, there was a watchful conductor or porter keeping a close eye on me.

Throughout my life, my favorite smell is diesel fuel fumes. When I was just a little girl, I would run and meet him at the door in his bib-overalls. During those thousands of big warm bear hugs with my nose buried deep into his chest, I would inhale the unmistakable odor of diesel. Even today, just a whiff of a passing freight train takes me back into his strong safe arms.

When my dad died, company officials came to our house to collect his keys, rule book and other railroad property. Although they reclaimed the prized relics of his railroad life, they also brought me the offer of a job. In August, I still had a few months of secretarial school to go. So, they told me when I was ready to go to work all I needed to do was go to the employment office at 65 Market Street in downtown San Francisco.

Just two months after my 19th birthday in January 1974, I interviewed. I barely passed the typing test! At school, I had been trained on a state-of-the-art IBM Selectric electric typewriter. The antique manual billing machine used for the required exam nearly threw me. But, I was able to squeak out the mandatory 45 words per minute requirement. Next, I hit the elevator and then ascended two staircases to see the company doctor. After I got the OK and signed a few papers, I was hired as a Guaranteed Extra Board Clerk based out of Bayshore, near San Francisco. The next day on the 24th, I reported to my first job as ticket agent trainee at South San Francisco at 6 a.m. My daily pay was $38.24 in an era of $2.00 an hour minimum wage. The adventure had begun.

In my years at SP I worked as a mud hop (car checker), demurrage clerk, yard office clerk, caboose cleaner, repair track clerk, round house clerk, and a carry all driver and more at Bayshore. I worked all shifts with mid-week rest days. I also worked as a ticket clerk down the Peninsula all the way to Santa Clara. I had a blast working with so many people that knew and loved my dad. I eventually also worked in Roseville and Watsonville.

I am the fourth and final generation to take up the railroad life. My mother's dad and her grandfather also worked on the SP. The railroad has been my career for nearly 40 years and I am happy for it. I know that somewhere my dad is happy too.

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Family, Love
Roseville, CA
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  • I worked with Ms. Dickson on the Bayshore extra board shortly after she passed her typing test. Somehow we simultaneously got assignments to work the Millbrae commuter station, lowering the average age of the SP staff by 40 years. The station was designed to double as the home for the station agent's family, so our lunch breaks were like exploring a great-grandmother's house, as we poked into the corners of the classic yellow-and-brown building. Ms. Dickson probably never knew that she intimidated me, because I thought she had a direct connection to headquarters at One Market Street.

    - J. Michael Hemmer a few years ago
  • I, too, came from a long line of railroaders. My mother's Dad, Pa, learned how to fire a locomotive for the Central of Georgia and worked as a fireman for the Santa Fe. He also worked for various construction crews that worked on different main lines during the depression. He had a brother who spent time as a "call boy" back when they use young men to go get the crews for their calls. And that was for Central of Georgia RR, also. It was a pleasure reading this story.

    - Jim Fulton a few years ago