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Even Its Boss Feels the Golden Gate's Spell

California and the West

Bridge: The San Francisco icon's manager knows its secrets, deals with daily crises big and small. But he still savors its majestic wonder.

November 27, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — It was amid the bustle of the morning rush hour that the lawn mower man threw his oily wrench into Kary Witt's car-moving machine.

The guy was calling from a pay phone, boasting that he had driven his old John Deere clear from Maine like that tractor-riding character in the film "The Straight Story." Now he wanted to rumble his grass-cutter across the Golden Gate Bridge through the teeth of a Friday commute.

Witt, the Golden Gate's 40-year-old manager, is a good-humored sort who can normally laugh at life's oddities. But not on this day.

"You're not driving that thing on my bridge," was his curt reply.

But Witt also knows the public relations responsibility that goes with managing one of the world's most recognizable icons--and he soon changed his mind after a flurry of press calls and exhortations from the lawn mower man's police escorts.

His fears confirmed, traffic soon bottle-necked, but not because of the mower; a mobile home broke an axle and Witt's crew frantically torched off the lug nuts to get the beast moved--all while the tractor sputtered past.

"A crazy morning," he now recalls, "but a typical morning."

With its soaring orange-vermilion towers often shrouded in mist, the Golden Gate Bridge is regarded as one of the world's architectural wonders. The centerpiece of the San Francisco skyline, the Art Deco-style span each year attracts 10 million walk-up visitors and shoulders the burden of 42 million vehicles.

But the Golden Gate is more than a bridge; it's a teeming city.

And Witt is its mayor.

He directs an army of 250 workers--including the 44 toll collectors who greet each passing motorist and the 58 painters and ironworkers who battle the salty air that quickly peels the bridge's coat of trademark International Orange and can chill a worker through three layers of clothing, even on a summer day.

There's the 15-man security force that patrols for suicide jumpers who see a leap from the Golden Gate as "the only stylish way to go." Not to mention the electricians, masons and traffic engineers who help keep the bridge in business.

Witt deals daily with the unexpected--from babies born in trucks stopped at the toll plaza to bodies dumped from the pedestrian walkway on starless winter nights.

"Kary learned a long time ago that this job comes calling for you at home on the weekends--you just can't get away from it," said Lt. Mike Locati of the Golden Gate's police force. "But if you want to be a bridge manager, this one is certainly the place to do it."

The boyish-looking Witt isn't the wrinkled veteran you might expect to be running the venerable bridge, which at age 63 is old enough to be his father. But he brings to the job a passion that many say is well beyond his years, as well as a scholarly respect for the bridge's history.

"You don't have to spend a lot of time explaining where you work," said Witt, who took the job last spring. "While it's no longer the biggest bridge in the world, it's still the Golden Gate, the bridge they said couldn't be built."

Constructed by engineer Joseph B. Strauss during the Great Depression, the Golden Gate defied critics who claimed the San Francisco Bay's swift current, deep waters and ominous weather conditions would permit no man-made structure to span its shores.

Eleven men died building the bridge, which was opened to vehicular traffic on May 28, 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a cable from the White House to announce the event.

Even today, with its tremendous twin towers set against a backdrop of mountains, sea and city, the bridge inspires letters from visitors compelled to describe the emotional experience of seeing it for the very first time.

But nobody has to sell Witt on the sheer wonder of the thing.

He knows the secrets of his bridge: that the U.S. Navy once wanted to paint it black with yellow strips to assure more visibility for passing ships, and that on the windiest days, when gusts can reach 70 mph, the span towers can sway 27 feet and the arched roadway can rise and fall 11 feet.

Witt came to the bridge in 1990, for years serving as a health and safety engineer--working alongside the painters and ironworkers who have spent decades suspended perilously above the roadway. Like them, he has felt the momentary fear of heights, knowing that one slip could send him plummeting 60 stories into the swift waters below.

The job of running the bridge can be grueling. Rising at 4:30 a.m. to make the 60-mile drive from his home in Sonoma County, Witt monitors bridge communications on his radio, already scouting the day's problems.

Once at the office, he eyes the commuter flow from surveillance monitors or from a bank of screens that fills the security headquarters overlooking traffic.

He spends nearly half his time in meetings--managing a $31.5-million annual budget and dealing with the 11 unions representing bridge workers.

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