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Bro Pro-File - Frank "Smokey" Gaines


Written by Tom Gable


If you’ve driven around San Diego much, including getting across Mission Bay and through Balboa Park, you’ve benefited from Brother Frank “Smokey” Gaines (nicknamed for SDSU Basketball coach David Smokey Gaines).


Frank had a 36-year career with the City of San Diego, retiring in 2019 as Senior Bridge Engineer /Deputy City Engineer. He was lured out of retirement to become one of three inspectors of record on SDSU Mission Bay, his last signature project in an engineering career that almost didn’t happen.


Frank went to UCSD in his First year to be a doctor. He was pre-med but soon had a significant ah-ha moment.


“I would have been a horrible doctor; a serious lack of empathy,” Frank said.

He transferred to SDSU. Several friends from the South Bay (Hilltop and Chula Vista High Schools) preceded him to SDSU and into ΣΑΕ. Frank pledged ΣΑΕ in the Spring of 1979. Being math-oriented, he turned to Engineering and was the only engineering major out of the 105 Brothers at CA-Theta.


“Lots of business majors,” Frank said.


The brotherhood experience was critical in such a big school. “Otherwise, you could walk around for two years and not know anyone,” he said.


He enjoyed the social connections through ΣΑΕ, had fun at events and parties, and made lifelong connections. He stays in touch with classmates through Facebook and random meet-ups, including at Padre games.


Engineering was a challenging subject, and Frank said his GPA could have been higher if he hadn’t enjoyed more of a social life than many of his engineering peers. But the choice of a major paid off with a rewarding career with the City of San Diego.


When he graduated in 1983, there were no jobs, and he sent resumes everywhere. Then, the City had a temporary position at its permit counter checking technical plans brought by builders for homes, carports, and patios.


The temporary job turned permanent and launched a long career as a civil engineer with the City. He obtained his professional registration/license in 1987. Bridge project highlights (from over 40 new/retrofit/rehab projects) included the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge by Petco Park (longest span single cable-stay bridge in the U.S.), joint retrofit /rehabilitation (with Caltrans) of the Cabrillo Bridge over State 163 in Balboa Park, West Mission Bay Bridge, Mike Gotch Memorial bridge over Rose Creek in Mission Bay.


He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Concrete Institute.


He was looking to travel after retirement, and then COVID hit. So, no travel, and retirement was short-lived. He got a call from friends about joining a team to work on the new SDSU West Mission Valley campus and Snapdragon Stadium. He joined in the fall of 2020 as one of three Inspectors of record on the campus, primarily civil and structural work, including a bridge, electrical, and landscaping.


He is on-site at 5:15 a.m. to prepare for the day. The site work covers the 166-acre campus, infrastructure, and bridge over the southeast corner of Ward Road. A park along the riverbank with basketball and other courts, athletic fields, and restrooms.


Safety is an ongoing concern. Frank said he saw near misses early in his career when workers got casual doing the same thing day in and day out. He remembered a fatal accident on the Ingraham Street bridge where someone fell from the work trestle. At SDSU Mission Valley, they have a weekly standdown for safety.


“I work with some characters who joke around,” Frank said. “But it’s serious work, and we need to keep addressing safety concerns and our standard procedures.”


Plans evolve as they are building, he said. Nothing is perfect, so there is a need to adjust. He enjoyed working on bridges. The most challenging?


“The coordination with Cal Trans on the Cabrillo Bridge,” he said. “The challenges of rehabilitating a 100-year-old bridge are significant. There is cancer in the concrete, and what was once a half-inch steel rod is now the side of pencil lead. The issues were more extensive than anticipated.”


The most rewarding?


“The Harbor Drive bridge by Petco Park – the longest single-cable span in the U.S. and a signature project for the city,” Frank said. It also required patience. It took 11 years to go from concept to ribbon cutting and grand opening.


He said the Mission Valley construction is proceeding according to schedule. The staff starts occupying Snapdragon on July 7, and the Aztecs scrimmage there in late August, and the first game is Sept. 3 against Arizona.


“Exciting times for SDSU and a signature project,” said Frank.


When his contract is up in November, he will re-retire. Outside interests are reading, being a sports fanatic (“except for the Chargers – I’m still bitter”), traveling to Sierras (Bishop, Mammoth, and Tahoe), and taking up fishing. He has three adult children (one a graduate of SDSU) and two grandchildren who live near him in Santee. He also looks forward to attending the ΣΑΕ lunches once his midday is free again.

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