Caltrans’ media chief sets retirement date
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
You turn on the television news and there’s a report about a road collapse, a big pileup on one of the freeways, highways that are affected by a fire. Chances are there’s one person you’ll see giving information on any of these situations: Terri Kasinga, the chief of public and media affairs for Caltrans District 8.
After a long career with the California Department of Transportation, Kasinga is retiring on July 29.
“For 33 years I have breathed and bled orange,” she said as she contemplates life after Caltrans.
Kasinga is a native Californian, born in downtown Los Angeles to a homeless woman who had made arrangements for her to be adopted. When that fell through, the first in a series of accidents in Kasinga’s life took place: Wayne and Edith Wendlandt in Bellflower adopted her and then adopted a boy 18 months later who became Kasinga’s brother.
Life was good until Kasinga was 10; her mother had a cerebral hemorrhage and fell into a coma for 25 years. Suddenly, the little girl had to take over the cooking, the cleaning. Her mother had always washed her hair, which hung down to her knees, so Kasinga’s hair was cut off into a pixie cut.
When Kasinga was 11, she started making phone calls after school to set up trucking jobs for her father, who was in construction. Perhaps as a precursor to what was to come, Wayne did work for several of Caltrans’ big contractors. “My Dad taught me to use the Thomas Guide maps. He’d have information on where to go the next day. I understood road construction at an early age so maybe it was meant to be.”
Her father, Kasinga said, helped build every freeway in Southern California. He built a good portion of Disneyland and even built a swimming pool for Bob Hope. He took Kasinga and her brother to work with him.
“I’ll never forget working nights, driving in torrential storms, my Dad hauling mud,” she said.
Kasinga’s first job was selling solar panels door to door. Then she moved into the office, doing phone soliciting for solar systems on homes. “I worked my way up with office jobs,” she said. It was a neighbor who encouraged Kasinga to apply for a job with the state.
She was successful, landing a job with the Department of Housing and Community Development, working in the permitting office. And then she applied for a job with Caltrans.
It was on Oct. 19, 1990, that Kasinga began her tenure with Caltrans. She got hired into the word processing pool as an office technician.
In what Kasinga calls another accident, she was promoted not a year later to a supervisor’s position. A lot of people, however, weren’t happy having a 26-year-old boss when they had been there for years.
So, after a year, she transferred to Operations, where she did budget work. Then she ended up in Facilities and finally was transferred to Public Affairs in 1999.
“I had no formal training,” Kasinga said. “I got some from my co-workers. Public Affairs wasn’t even close to being the office it is today. It was a very small office with two people.”
They hadn’t been writing a lot of press releases so Kasinga started writing them for the Devore project. “I wrote poetic phrases to get people’s attention,” she said. “I had fun with it for a year until some people complained.” They thought she was making light of some serious situations.
One of the recipients of her emails – James Ziegler of Crestline – saved her poems and created a book of them, which Kasinga has to this day.
Talking about the position from which she is retiring, Kasinga said she “wasn’t aiming for this job. I don’t know how I became chief as I only have an AA degree. It was never my goal to go into public affairs.”
At the time she did, Anne Mayer was the district director. “She told me I had found my niche, that I was a people person. ‘You’re a human being, not the suit and tie,’” Mayer told Kasinga. “I became the go-between between Caltrans and the community. I was there so people could approach Caltrans, talk to someone, express their concerns, get answers.”
When you’re a public information officer, Kasinga said, “you’re the customer service branch for Caltrans. People expect someone to be there to help them 24/7. We have a great team. Whoever’s trying to get in touch with you has to come first. If you don’t have the answer, you have to find it in a timely manner.
“We listen to what people are telling us. We try to explain things to them in a way they understand. People have a right to answers. Sometimes we can’t give the answers people want to hear but we try.
“I have been a proud and humble public servant. My goal in those 33 years was to provide service in a human manner – not just friendly but human, someone people can relate to, someone they want to call the next time they have a question or concern.”
Her most difficult interview, Kasinga said, was with an investigative reporter for one of the Los Angeles television stations. He had, she noted, caught several Caltrans employees in wrongdoing – out shopping on company time, for one thing. “He filmed people for days, showed us the video and tried to get our reaction. We told him we were going to film also.”
Kasinga was in a room alone with the reporter and their two camera crews. “I kept going back to the talking points developed by headquarters. He couldn’t get anything out of me that made it a sensational interview. I was prepared for him. Halfway through the interview, he was so frustrated.”
Later, her boss asked Kasinga if she realized what she had done to him. “You had him so frustrated,” the boss said, “he started bouncing his leg up and down, trying to figure out a way to trip you up, to get something he could put on camera and make Caltrans look bad.”
Her favorite assignments have been disaster responses. “I’m really good at emergency response,” Kasinga said, “That’s my forte – anything dealing with County Fire, CHP, the sheriff.”
And how did she train for that? “The most important part of my training and knowledge came from the County Fire Office of Emergency Services,” Kasinga said. “Tracey Martinez has been my cohort for so many years. When I’m in a jam or need advice, I call Tracey. She and I are cut from the same cloth – we think alike. I wouldn’t have the knowledge I do if not for her and OES.”
Just because Kasinga is retiring in a matter of days doesn’t mean life with Caltrans is slowing down. Last week she got called out one night at 1:30 a.m. because a truck filled with expensive chickens – costing $100 each – had overturned. The night before that, she responded to what she called a “horrific” accident on the 91.
“When I’m done working,” she said, “I lie down to rest my brain.”
What will Kasinga be doing in retirement? “That’s the problem – I don’t know,” she said.
She did purchase a house last year in Cherry Valley; the complex has a golf course and a pool so there may be golf clubs and water aerobics in her future.
She is looking forward to spending more time with her daughter, Jacey, and Mitchell Villarreal, who has been her “sidekick” for the past 12 years.
“I have to give Mitch credit,” Kasinga said. “He has gone to all the community events with me and wore the Cone Kid costume for 10 years.” He plans to continue working for another three years for the grinding company where he is employed, delivering and picking up blades. He was delivering to Caltrans before the two met – another in the series of accidents that have made up Kasinga’s life.
“I’m blessed to have a great family,” Kasinga said.
Editor’s note: Terri Kasinga will be greatly missed by all members of the public and media who have worked with her over the years. We at The Alpine Mountaineer wish her all the very best.