One of the voices that field crews sometimes hear on their radios from the Region 4 Transportation Operations Center speaks across three generations of ODOT workers. Dispatcher Sue Ferns is proud to say that her dad, and his dad, worked for ODOT in days gone by.
Her grandfather, “Wilts,” started working for the agency in 1930. He had been living in Nebraska when the need for water outweighed his own need for a home (local authorities decided to build a dam that would flood his property). Wilts packed up the family and moved to Oregon.
After a short stint in eastern Oregon dredging for gold, Wilts moved farther west, to the Oregon Coast, where he found work oiling roads for the State Highway Department.
Not long after that, the Highway Department learned he had a couple of sons who would fit in well with the growing agency, and they hired Ferns’ dad, Roy Simpson, or “Swede,” as most people knew him.
In those days, it was common for the road crews to travel around the state, and Swede worked in central Oregon. He’d been on the job for about three months near Willowdale when his truck rolled over and he suffered major injuries. Those injuries kept him out of World War II, but he found a way to keep working for the agency. He also found a sweetheart, Elsie, who joined the ODOT team. After the war, Elsie left the agency, but Swede stayed on, and after 42 years working for the Highway Department, he retired in 1976.
Ferns began her own ODOT career in 1999. Behind the scenes in the Bend traffic operations center, she offers a familiar voice to field crews from Madras to Baker City. What they might not know is that when she calls on the radio, it’s an echo from the past, a time when Wilts and Swede made their mark on the highways across Oregon; and now Ferns is making hers.