By Miriam Raftery
Photo: SDSU Library
August 30, 2019 (San Diego) – Wadie P. Deddeh, former state Senator from San Diego and the first Iraqi-American elected to public office in the United States, passed away on August 27, just days before his 99th birthday. Hailed as a statesman and an American success story by leaders on both sides of the political aisle, Deddeh;s legacy includes authoring the 1972 bill that established the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and inspiring generations of immigrants to attain the American dream.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq on Sept. 6, 1920, Deddeh was raised in a politically active Chaldean Christian family that included two uncles in the Iraqi parliament. His father died when Deddeh was 12 and at age 14, he dropped out of school, Capitol Weekly reported.
A priest instilled in Deddeh the importance of education and also taught him his first English words from the Declaration of Indepedence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those words proved life-changing, inspiring Deddeh to learn English and emigrate to the U.S. World War II delayed those plans. While awaiting approval to come to America, Deddeh obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Baghdad.
Deddeh came to America from Iraq in the 1940s, becoming a teacher and later serving in the California Assembly from 1967 to 1983 and in the State Senate from 1983 to 1993.
Finally arriving in America, he first lived in Detroit, studying constitutional law and political science. He married Mary-Lynn Drake and they soon moved to Chula Vista. Their son, Peter, became Presiding Judge of the San Diego Superior Court Judge.
Deddeh, a Democrat, joined President John F. Kennedy’s campaign and became a political science teacher at a community college before launching his own run for office. He served in the state Legislature for over 25 years, later running for Congress but was defeated by Bob Filner.
In Sacramento he served for many years on the Revenue and Taxation Committee. A state office building was named after Deddeh, who became known as the Father of Caltrans. He was also noted for reaching across the aisle to forge political consensus.
Upon his retirement in 1993, Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti called Deddeh “the heart of the Senate.”
After leaving office, he returned to teaching at Southwestern Community College and also worked as a lobbyist at the Wilson Group founded by former State Senator Bob Wilson. He helped build St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon and remained a strong voice championing the immigrant community for many years.
A documentary film titled “The Lion’s Journey: The Story of Wadie P. Deddeh” was released in 2009, hailing Deddeh as a “true American statesman” who endured death threats during the Gulf War yet won respect and friendship of Democrats and Republicans alike, working to benefit his community and all Californians.
His autobiography titled “Only in America: An Immigrant’s Success Story” was published in December 2018 at age 98. The book documents how Deddeh reminds us all ofthe principals on which America was founded and how that inspired him to achieve great things—exemplifying a type of leadership the world needs.
A painted portrait of Deddeh was commissioned recently by the San Diego Library as part of its “Living Legends” collection.
Former Governor Pete Wilson hailed Deddeh as “a great patriot and a great teacher,” adding, “His personal and political courage made possible the personal and political honesty that I witnessed and so admire.”
Upon news of his passing this week, local leaders posted their memories of Deddeh on Facebook.
Barry Jantz, CEO of the Grossmont Healthcare District and a former legislative aide in Sacramento, wrote, “I had the greatest respect for former CA Senator Wadie Deddeh, a leader and a gentleman. Condolences to his family and the many community members whose lives he touched.”
Former San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Alevy called Deddeh a “fine person,” recalling him as “Dignified, honest and classy. We could use more like the Senator.”
Mark Arabo, human rights leader and former CEO of the Neighborhood Markets Association, is Deddeh’s nephew. “We all lost a legendary person and a beautiful soul,” he wrote, adding that Deddeh will be “dearly missed.”
Former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn recalled Deddeh as “thoughtful and conscientious.”
“Wadie was a statement with few peers,” former Lemon Grove Councilman George Gastil wrote. “I got to know him when I worked for Senator Denise Ducheny, who served many of the same communities that Wadie had served. This is a sad day for all of San Diego, and especially for the Chaldean community that he helped build.”
Walt Ekard, former chief administrative officer for the County of San Diego, recalled Deddeh as “an iconic name in San Diego civic matters! He leaves a great legacy behind.”
Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Mary-Lynn; a son, Presiding San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh (and wife Aleta); three grandchildren; two brothers; and one sister.
A memorial service for Deddeh will be held on Wed. Sept. 18 at 11:30 a.m.at St.. Vincent Catholic Church, 4080 Hawk St., San Diego. He will be interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, 4470 Hilltop Dr., San Diego. For details or to send flowers, visit https://memorials.eastcountymortuary.com/P+Deddeh-Senator+Wadie+/3957224/service-details.php