Shelly Nathan Bailey, a pioneering civil engineer who overcame obstacles during a half-century in the public and private sectors, died Feb. 16 of complications related to diabetes and cancer, his family said. He was 84.
Starting as a junior drafting aide in the state Department of Transportation, Mr. Bailey went on to a career as an expert engineer. He managed a Caltrans quality assurance program for materials used in highway ramps, signs and traffic-safety features.
He ran the concrete materials lab at the state Department of Water Resources and helped develop a new type of concrete for building dams. He designed major hydraulic structures, including aqueducts and fish hatcheries.
In 1978, he started his own firm and repaved the runway at Mather Air Force Base. He built early segments of the Regional Transit light-rail and Sacramento Cable systems. He worked on big jobs for Aerojet, the regional sewage treatment plant and other government and private clients.
Mr. Bailey faced many hurdles on the way to career success. He struggled with the engineering curriculum at California State University, Sacramento, while working to support a wife and young children. It took him six years to earn his degree at age 37 and three tries to pass the state test to be a registered professional engineer.
"He didn't give up on anything," said his daughter, Shellette Bass. "If you told him he couldn't do something, he'd say, 'We'll just see about that.' "
Meanwhile, Mr. Bailey blazed a trail for African Americans. Before he finished college in 1965, "there were only two or three black civil engineers" in the state, said Frank Jordan of the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers.
Mr. Bailey, who co-founded and served as president of the Northern California council, encouraged African Americans to become engineers. He mentored students and taught engineering labs at CSUS. He was active in the Sacramento NAACP and other community groups.
He served as president of the Sacramento section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Northern California chapter of the American Concrete Institute. In 1968, the ASCE named him California's Outstanding Engineer for his involvement in community activities.
"He was a titan not just among African Americans, but for the entire profession," said Jordan, an engineer.
The son of a general contractor, Mr. Bailey was born in 1928 in Los Angeles. He spent 10 years as a fingerprint technician for the state Department of Justice before joining Caltrans.
A Sacramento resident since 1960, he married and divorced twice. He had four children during his first marriage and was predeceased in 2004 by a son, Schuyler.
Although Mr. Bailey tried to make time for family camping trips in his early years, his career required long hours and often overshadowed home life, said his granddaughter, Angela Bass.
"He was always told that he couldn't achieve his dreams because of his race, or because it was hard, or whatever," she said. "That's why he worked so hard. He wanted to provide for his family, and he wanted to be respected. He inspired me to never give up."
Shelly N. Bailey Born: Jan. 16, 1928 Died: Feb. 16, 2012 Survived by: Daughter, Shellette Bass of Sacramento; sons, Bryan of Watsonville and Jeffrey of Sacramento; longtime friend, Mabele Elliot of Sacramento; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren Services and remembrances: Information will be posted at www.shellynathanbailey.com. OBITUARY