When city leaders say that Sam Peterson knows Brea from the ground down, they aren't misspeaking.
Peterson, who began as a street sweeper in 1949 and retired this summer as city engineer, is like the longtime family doctor who has acute knowledge of the patient.
"Everything that's underground, he knows," said James R. Cutts, Brea's director of development. "He's got this whole city committed to memory."
Said Tim O'Donnell, Brea's assistant city manager: "Sam has an absolutely incredible grasp of details. In a $19-million project"--the widening of Imperial Highway to provide more access to the downtown area--"you wouldn't expect the top guy to be able to pinpoint any spot on the ground and tell you, 'This pipe is going here,' or, 'That line runs here.' "
Peterson, 65, accepts the praise modestly.
"I don't know if I could do it today," he said, breaking into an easy smile. "But there was a time when I could sit here and tell you, 'Oh, yeah, Elm Street, there's a bad water main there that we need to look at.' "
Peterson won't be leaving entirely. The city has a contract with him for engineering services. He did use the occasion of his retirement, however, to reflect on how the city has changed.
When he first started working in Brea, he recalled, its 4,000 residents were still mourning the loss of the town's switchboard operator, who had been replaced by direct-dial service.
Peterson's first job was in the maintenance department, where he was one of eight workers who swept the seven-block business district along Brea Boulevard every day with hand brooms.
In the late 1960s, Peterson decided to study engineering. He began at Long Beach City College and eventually earned a degree from Cal State Long Beach. His academic credentials in hand, he became deputy city engineer in 1975, and five years later he moved into the top spot.
That was the same year Peterson dealt with a disaster that earned him a nickname that stuck: "Mr. Clean."
"I always keep a set of white coveralls in the car in case I have to do something unexpected," he said. "In 1980, there were major rains, and one night a sewer line broke. It was one of the biggest catastrophes in my time because suddenly we had to stop live sewage from running down the old Brea Canyon Channel.
"We had no place to take it, so we were laying pipe across this open field in the dirt and rain. They got pictures of me in these coveralls and called me 'Mr. Clean' after that."
Because of Peterson's retirement, the city will hire an engineer and a small staff to handle day-to-day operations. Large projects, officials said, will be done by private contractors.
"The rest of Brea will be built by developers," Peterson said. "Maybe someday Brea will lose that small-town feeling. . . . But today it still has that."