Tell Us Their Story: A Remembrance of Michael Gene Dooner

A Remembrance

by Lynette M. Smith, Niece of the deceased

Michael Gene Dooner, longtime El Monte resident and Retiree who enjoyed a 37-year career with the City of Los Angeles, passed away peacefully on Nov. 17, 2022. He was 89.

Gene, the older of two sons, was born in Stockton on Jan. 3, 1933. Their father worked in construction, and by the time Gene was 12 his family had lived in 11 Western states and Pennsylvania. Two of Gene’s boyhood jobs included picking fruit in Provo, Utah, and selling newspapers on the streets and in saloons and gambling halls in Tonopah, Nevada.

Starting a Career in Construction

Just out of high school, Gene Dooner worked from 1950 to 1955 for private contractors on a variety of construction jobs. Some of the jobs he was involved with included operating a bulldozer in El Monte to widen Tyler Avenue into four lanes between Bryant and Lower Azusa Roads; working for Owl Rock and Construction Company, usually operating a bulldozer in the decomposed-granite pit in northern Montebello; grading the ground for houses and streets for a new residential subdivision in Burbank; and working on a finishing crew for part of the San Bernardino Freeway. He also operated a bulldozer, grader, scraper and DW21 rubber-tired tractor-trailer dirt hauler to build up the dirt level for levees that were part of the flood control system for Whittier Narrows Dam; and, as part of the same project, he operated a DW20 and DW21 hauler, motor grader, bulldozer, and Cat and carryall, constructing levees for the Los Angeles River to make it into a concrete-lined flood-control channel flowing to the Pacific Ocean.

Joining the City of Los Angeles

In October 1955, Gene began his construction career with the City of Los Angeles. Here’s how he spent his time with the Vity:

Seven years as a newly hired Equipment Operator, driving an asphalt paving machine and working on projects located from Eagle Rock to mid Los Angeles and into San Pedro.

Six years reassigned to the street-reconstruction crew, running their LeTourneau rubber-tired bulldozer to dig up existing streets, haul the load to the dump, and prepare the initial sub-base for the new street.

(Gene told a story about when the Baldwin Hills Dam broke on Dec. 14, 1963. Several people in one neighborhood were left stranded, as their one road out had washed away and they had no way to walk or drive out. Gene came to the rescue using a bulldozer to build up an embankment as a temporary road, using somewhat dry dirt, compacting it, and then applying decomposed granite to the surface to solidify it. This created a path where those people who had been trapped could walk or drive out to escape the area.)

Seventeen years, first being promoted to Street Maintenance Reconstruction Crew Supervisor for the same crew, working on concrete, gutters and curbs, asphalt, demolition, and haul-away, importing new asphalt, prepping the sub-base, and paving for both local and major streets; and later being promoted to superintendent.

A little more than a year, rounding-out his work experience by working at City Hall as an Estimator of repairs and job costs of current work by the crews; and, as projects were finished, compiling the cost of the entire job.

Gene Dooner atop a bulldozer while working for Public Works/Street Services.

Three years in the field as Zone 1 superintendent of the asphalt plant at Olympic Boulevard and Seventh Street in Boyle Heights, still also working with a repair crew on street reconstruction and related work, including equipment operation as needed.

Two years as Zone 2 Super-intendent in Van Nuys, for 12 of the City’s 24 street-maintenance districts.

Three years as night cleaning Superintendent, where it was his job to address any problems associated with the nighttime cleanup taking place in any of the more than 7,000 miles of streets and alleys in the entire City.

Gene retired from the City in June 1992. His construction experience with private contractors when working with the City had served him well, as he was valued for being able to solve problems by applying creative solutions he’d learned in those past positions. One example was during the relaying of the sewer pipes after the Baldwin Hills Dam broke, where he was able to move some large pipes using his bulldozer, simply by hooking a chain at each end of the pipe and then running the chain across the top of the bulldozer’s blade, so that the ’dozer could quickly and efficiently lift and deliver the pipe where it was needed, rather than having to use a long-arm crane, which would have taken much longer.

Service in the Military Reserves

In 1951, Gene began 34 years as a reservist in the U.S. Naval Construction Force (NCF), better known as Navy Seabees. He started out as an E-3 Apprentice and worked his way up to E-9 Master Chief. Because he had been involved in construction work for his regular career, Gene’s assigned job as Operations Supervisor for Alpha Company was to find out the work and machines required for the other Seabee companies’ work projects, and then assign people qualified to run those machines.

As a Seabee, he served in a wide variety of locations and on some interesting construction projects: the Marine Corps Base in San Clemente; a pier on the waterfront in Kodiak, Alaska; on high-speed roads in Puerto Rico, connecting the ammunition bunker to the main highway leading to the base where ships were being loaded with ammunition; and crane operation while assembling a metal building in Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii.

Reflections and Remembrance

In 2021, when asked to reflect on his life overall, Gene said, “I was a hard worker for whoever I worked for.” He used to tell his workers, “Anything less than right is wrong.” Actually, that was a good moral compass for his entire life.

Michael Gene Dooner was predeceased by his wife, Jan, to whom he had been married for 51 years, and his two sons, Mike and Doug. He is survived by his younger brother, Jerry, and was “Grandpa” to three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Gene will always hold a place in the hearts of his many friends and loved ones