By Laurie Merrill / ADOT Communications
Years before Kee Yazzie joined the Arizona Department of Transportation as a civil engineer in 1987, he was a sports star at his Kayenta high school who excelled in cross-country.
“I wasn’t fast, just consistent,” Yazzie said of his running, which earned him a college scholarship.
The same can be said of Yazzie’s work ethic, honed over 27 years with ADOT. Yazzie, who retired April 26 from his post as transportation engineering specialist in ADOT's Northeast District, gained a reputation as a meticulous, conscientious professional.
“If you gave him an assignment, he would get it done,” said David Sikes, a retired ADOT district engineer who worked with Yazzie for about 15 years. “He was an excellent engineer.”
Yazzie, who speaks Navajo, was also respected for acting as liaison between ADOT and Native American communities regarding transportation projects in the district.
“Most of the projects that we have on the reservation usually required consultation with the Navajo and the Hopi,” Yazzie said. “Every project had to be approved by the Navajo and Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
One particularly complex project was the three-phase construction of a State Route 264 segment that included two new bridges and a roundabout in Burnside.
“They don’t have a name in Navajo for roundabout, so I told them it’s called ‘that’s the one you go around,’” he said. “I made a name for them.”
Yazzie is proud of the “little things we added to the projects.” He worked closely with Native Americans to develop changes in road designs that allowed for such improvements as bus pullouts, turnouts, additional paving and more.
Raised with six siblings in Black Mesa near Kayenta, Yazzie was the first of his family to attend college. He graduated from Northern Arizona University in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.
He and his wife, Shirley, have three sons: Aaron, Evan and Jared. Aaron, who graduated from Stanford University and now works as a engineer for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he couldn’t be any prouder of his father.
“His journey to becoming a civil engineer is a story that should be told,” Aaron said.
At Monument Valley High School, he was an outstanding scholar and athlete who played football, joined the wrestling team and ran track and field as well as cross-country, Aaron said.
Yazzie graduated a year early with an athletic scholarship to Southern Utah University, where he attained a pre-engineering associate degree before attending NAU.
“Having gone through engineering studies myself, I am completely impressed with the journey he chose with so little support,” Aaron said. “It was inspirational, during his retirement party, to hear his co-workers talk about his impact, especially for the Navajo communities serviced by ADOT.”
ADOT recruited Yazzie during an NAU job fair for its Engineer in Training program. Yazzie worked at several locations but spent most of his career was in Holbrook.
He worked for ADOT twice, leaving in 1996 to spend five years as a BIA supervisory highway engineer. He rejoined in 2001 and stayed another 18 years.
“The Navajo Nation is always saying, ‘Go to school and come back and help your people.’ They gave me a scholarship, I went, I got my education, I worked eight years and decided it’s time to go back to the Navajo Nation,” he said.
Randy Routhier, an ADOT senior resident engineer on construction projects who met Yazzie in 1994, said the agency was keen to rehire Yazzie because he brought so much ability to communicate and coordinate.
“He had inside information that appealed to the designer,” Routhier said of his long-time friend. “He had a lot of history in the Holbrook area. And he was regimented as far as reviewing plans. He was regimented as far as getting plans in and comments in on time.”
Though retired from ADOT, Yazzie doesn’t plan to completely hang up his hat. He said he plans to do highway construction consulting.
But he leaves behind a trail of good memories for colleagues like Routhier.
“We got very close,” Routhier said. “It was a joy working with him.”
And to his son, Aaron, Yazzie is a hero.
“Kee Yazzie is my inspiration,” he said. “He, quite literally, paved the road to my career at NASA. I am a very proud son.”