Editor’s Note: San Jose Legends is a new monthly series that tells the remarkable stories of the historic and legendary people who have helped shape and transform our city.
Rod Diridon has a train station named after him and is widely renowned as the “father” of Silicon Valley’s modern transit system.
But to hear him tell it, his decades-long focus on transportation started not because he had any particular expertise in or enthusiasm for the subject, but because he was the lowest in the pecking order.
When he won a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1974, it had just launched a countywide transit program that had gotten off to a terrible start. Among other things, the small fiberglass buses the county had bought for the service were burning up. Because Diridon was the newest member of the board, his colleagues gave him what looked to be the thankless job of cleaning up the mess.
“I got into transportation accidentally,” Diridon told San José Spotlight. “They gave the responsibility for transit to me because I was the youngest.”
Diridon quickly turned the service around and helped put it on a sound financial footing. And that launched his career as the region’s transportation guru. Along the way, he helped start the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, spearheaded building the area’s light rail system and helped pave the way for California’s future high-speed rail system.
“Rod Diridon absolutely deserves the title as the father of transit throughout Silicon Valley and in the Bay Area,” said Carl Guardino, the former CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, who’s known and worked with Diridon on transportation issues for more than 30 years.
Diridon wanted to work for the local railroad as a kid
That he would eventually play such a foundational role in the San Jose region’s transportation network was not obvious during Diridon’s youth.
He grew up in Dunsmuir, a poor railroad town near Mount Shasta. As a teen, Diridon earned money cutting trees in the forest and peeling them to sell as poles in the market. He also fished every weekend so his family and neighbors could eat.
“We learned to work hard and to make do and be very happy with a modest lifestyle,” Diridon said. “When the television started coming in, when I was in my early teens, we began to realize we were a little more modest than we thought we had been and, of course, that made us want to strive for more.”
In his youth, Diridon played football and ran track and worked a succession of jobs, including as a gas station attendant and a carpenter’s apprentice. But his ambition was to work for the railroad like his father, who was a brakeman at the Southern Pacific— now Union Pacific — railroad in Dunsmuir. His father changed his name from Claudius Diridoni to Claude Diridon to get the job, as the United States was going to war with Italy and the district superintendent of the Southern Pacific wouldn’t hire Italians.
Diridon said his inherited name may have foreshadowed his career. “Diri” is Latin for direction and “doni” means giver.
“Direction giver,” Diridon said. “Guess politics was a good career area for me.”
Those around him urged Diridon set his sights higher than the train tracks, especially after he got good test scores in high school. So he went to the Bay Area for college, eventually getting both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in statistics from San Jose State University. He did end up working for the railroad, wielding sledgehammers and digging ditches and later as a brakeman and fireman, but only as a way to help pay for school.
After two tours of duty in Vietnam and a two-year stint at aerospace company Lockheed Martin, he founded the Decision Research Institute, where one of the research procedures he developed was adopted by the United Nations. That experience helped Diridon get involved with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, which ultimately led to his forty-year career in politics and public policy.
He’s long focused on transit issues
Diridon’s first job in politics was as a member of the Saratoga City Council, to which he was elected in 1973. He was elected to the county Board of Supervisors the following year. In 1976, Diridon made history by spearheading the first sales tax in California that was earmarked for transit. That tax led to the creation of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
Over the next 20 years, Diridon served as chairman at various times of every county transit program. He led nine different boards overseeing railroad construction projects and headed the reconstruction effort of what became known as Diridon Station.
“My friends in politics said they were continually running for office, so they never get to focus on the job that they were elected to do,” Diridon said. “And me, (transportation) is all I focused on, so that was a good thing.”
VTA General Manager and CEO Nuria Fernandez praised Diridon for his unparalleled dedication to Santa Clara County transit.
“Rod’s incredible vision and foresight that began some four decades ago have resulted in a 42-mile light rail network and a great deal of road and highway improvements that have greatly benefited San Jose and our region,” Fernandez said.
After Diridon left the Board of Supervisors in 1995 due to term limits, he started to take on a larger role in transit issues in the state and nationally. He began running the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State. He chaired the Transit Cooperative Research Program, a branch of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. And he served on the California High Speed Rail Authority Board.
A running theme of Diridon’s public policy work throughout his career has been environmentalism and sustainability. As a county parks liaison, Diridon pushed for more open space. He especially wanted to expand Sanborn Park in Saratoga, which he called “his park,” because it was where he married his wife Gloria.
When he first got elected to the Board of Supervisors, the county had 800 acres of park land. By the time he left, it had 43,000 acres.
Diridon is teaming with Rotary clubs to fight climate change
Meanwhile, while he led the Transit Cooperative Research Program, Diridon secured funding for a study on how sustainable transportation could help combat climate change.
Even after ostensibly retiring, Diridon has stayed active in transportation and environmental issues. During the 2016 campaign to pass Measure B, a sales tax measure targeted at funding transit projects, Diridon volunteered several days a week to help with outreach, Guardino recalled.
“How often do people volunteer for unpaid roles in such a selfless community service way?” Guardino said. “He was already in his 70s and could easily kick his feet up, well deserved, on a couch reading scrapbooks.”
But Diridon didn’t — and doesn’t — want to read scrapbooks. He wants to combat climate change and help make the world a better place for his four grandchildren.
“Winston Churchill has a famous quote, ‘never, never, never, never, never, never give up.’ He could have written that about Rod,” Guardino said.
As he spoke about his hopes for the future, Diridon coughed and apologized for the interruption. Diridon has been struggling to talk for the past 10 years. A tumor in his chest had torn the nerve connected to his left lung and the nerve connected to his left vocal cord. It causes him to cough, and gives his voice a rasp, but it doesn’t stop him from continuing to advocate for green climate policies.
He now chairs the regional Rotary Climate Action Council, which encourages city leaders to tackle climate change. Specifically, the group is promoting the use of transit, the shift to electric cars, minimizing natural gas usage and the installation of solar power systems in homes and commercial buildings. Diridon gives speeches every week on Zoom to community leaders in support of environmental research and activism in between visits to his grandchildren, who live two houses down.
“That’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing now — fighting hard to combat climate change through the Rotary clubs,” Diridon said. “There’s 32,000 Rotary clubs in the world … if we can communicate back through those clubs to local communities, then maybe we will have an impact on the world’s ability to fight climate change in time to avoid it being terminal for our kids.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.