By Miriam Raftery
February 28, 2022 (Sn Diego’s East County) – Dan Russell was a hero in more ways than one. He worked as a firefighter for 27 years with the San Diego Fire Department. But for the past 15 years, he’s become best know for his tireless efforts to clean up trash along local freeway and other volunteer work in rural East County. But on Saturday, February 26, Russell died in his sleep at age 79.
In an interview with East County Magazine in 2018, Russell estimated just how much trash he had cleared from local highways over a dozen years. “I would say I average five hours a day, six days a week. I pick up just under a thousand pounds a month,” he said, adding, “real close to 10,000 pounds a year; over 100,000 pounds since I got started.”
His friend, Bill Jones, lauded Russell as a “true hero.” Not only does Russell volunteer keeping roadways clean, he also gives of his time at Mountain Health community center each summer to teach children about the didgeridoo, an Australian musical instrument originated by Aborigines in the Outback.
Photo, right: Jose Estrada from Cal rans presents Dan Russell with an award in appreciation
Why did he spend so many hours in his golden years cleaning up roadside debris?
“I do it because I’m tired of our freeway being the trashiest one in the nation,” said Russell, who got inspired after seeing clean highways in Oregon and Washington. “The goal is to put a little gold back into the golden state, especially Interstate 8, because I travel that every day.”
At first, he did cleanup as an individual. Then a California Highway Patrol Officer stopped him for illegal parking and threatened to issue a citation and arrest him, Russell recalled.
Then he learned about an adopt-a-highway program through Caltrans. He started along a section of Interstate near the Pine Valley bridge, but has also cleaned up multiple other highways in our region including sections of Highway 52 in Santee and Buckman Springs Road in Campo.
“One time a lady stopped and gave me a hundred dollars and said thanks,” he recalled adding that nowadays, CHP officers stop and thank him, too. He's also received an award from Cal Trans in recognition of his efforts.
In his spare time, he helped out at the Mountain Health community center, including volunteering to conduct a craft workshop each summer for children to raise money for services helping kids.
“I used to be involved in playing and making didgeridoos as well as boomerangs,” he explained.
He started with a boomerang business, since he enjoyed throwing boomerangs. (View video of his boomerang demonstration.) Then he met Richard Harrison, known as the “Boomerang Man,” in Louisiana while traveling across the U.S. “All these boomerangs were hanging on the wall, different types, and he had a long tube,” he recalled.
Soon, Russell closed his boomerang shop and started making didgeridoos. “I went on the Internet and found a popular band in San Diego called Indigenous,” he told ECM. He took lessons from a band member and then went to didgeridoo festivals in Oregon and Joshua Tree, that included Aborigines from Australia, where the didgeridoo originated.
His workshop at summer camp for kids at Mountain Health taught kids about the instrument’s history and included a solo performance of the unusual instrument as well as a boomerang demonstration. He also provided spooky sound effects on the deep bass-sounding didgeridoo for a Halloween event. (Hear the Halloween didgeridoo sound effects .)
As for his work picking up trash, his pet peeve was companies that adopted a highway section for good public relations, but rarely showed up to do the cleanup. He hoped to see more enforcement by Cal Trans of the requirements, shorter and more manageable segments available for adoption, and a lot more volunteers.
In our 2018 interview, Russell said he didn’t doesn’t know who will carry on someday with his roadside cleanup volunteer work, which he acknowledged is “quite a commitment,” adding, “It never ends."
But now his work as a highway cleanup angel has come to an end, and it’s time for others to carry on his legacy.
Learn how you can adopt a highway from Caltrans at http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/maint/adopt/.