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CMC employee has zest for life

The salads, fruit and assorted entrees at Claremont McKenna’s Collins Dining Hall aren’t quite complete without one more ingredient added to the mix: Cheva M. Garcia. The 89-year-old Claremont resident has been a permanent fixture at the school’s lunch line since she was hired on in 1951. She remains the school’s longest standing employee, an honor she wears with pride.

“This place is like my second home,” Ms. Garcia said. “These people are my family.”

Meal service at CMC has changed over the years—from a mix of hors d'oeuvres to a family-style spread to the more traditional pick-your-pleasure cafeteria fare that is served today—but Ms. Garcia approaches her work with the same gusto. And her famous wreath-shaped jello salad continues to gain her notoriety at Christmastime, just as it has for decades.

She takes her post seriously. Every weekday, Ms. Garcia is up and raring to go at 6 a.m., fixing the students’ breakfast before she gets her own. After a quick half-hour break, she’s back to work serving the first meal of the day and then cleaning up and prepping for the next, cutting up fruit and preparing fresh salads for hungry students.

The dining hall staple recognizes that retirement is on the horizon; she claims age 90 is her limit. For the time being, however, she’s happy for the busy schedule. And, in fact, she says she’d have it no other way.

“I like being in here, socializing with everyone,” she said.

Ms. Garcia was born on March 1925 in Los Angeles, where her father worked in a family-run grocery store near what is now Chinatown. Soon after Ms. Garcia’s birth, the family traded in their store and city life for the sprawling citrus groves of north Pomona as her father went to work in the orchards. Two years later they moved further east, joining other migrant pickers in the bungalows of the Arbol Verde district off Claremont Boulevard and First Street in Claremont.

Spanning three towns and two counties, Arbol Verde was a community all its own, providing a culturally-rich upbringing for Ms. Garcia despite the struggles of segregation felt at school and other areas of everyday life. For instance, Ms. Garcia notes that Mexican students were quietly tucked into their own separate classroom when she attended Sycamore Elementary School. Festive celebrations called las Jamaicas, shifts at the corner grocery store and neighborhood plays acted out at the Pomona College gymnasium were highlights of her happy childhood.

A neighborhood boy—Salvador “Sal” Garcia—was another important feature. The pair married in 1947, settling in the Arbol Verde home Ms. Garcia still lives in today. The structure was built by Mr. Garcia’s parents with the money he would send home from his World War II deployment with the United States Navy.

The pair turned their house into a home with the addition of five children—David, Susie, Henry, Daniel and Grace Anne. The family didn’t want for much. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia emphasized the importance of providing a strong educational foundation for their children, which they have, in turn, shared with their own. Still, money was hard to come by. Toiling in the groves became increasingly difficult for Mr. Garcia after a work accident left him without one of his hands.

The devastating injury did little to dampen his spirits. The former Navy sailor found new opportunity along with a crop of war veterans looking for a fresh start at one of Claremont’s newest institutions, Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). With a growing family, Mr. Garcia did not, like many returning military personnel, pursue a degree at the school with the help of the GI Bill. Instead, he went to work in the school’s dining hall. Though he initially was opposed to the idea of his wife juggling work and motherhood, Ms. Garcia took a position in the dining hall in the summer of 1951. By that September, she was offered a full-time post.

The dining hall employee is no stranger to hard work. After her father’s death when she was just 16, Ms. Garcia took it upon herself as the eldest of 10 children to help provide for the family, earning the nickname “Mom” from her siblings. Whether at the Arbol Verde grocery store or picking crops in family orchards up north and in the San Pedro cannery, she took the responsibility to care for her family seriously. The same sense of accountability transferred to her post at CMC.

“I’ve always thought of my co-workers,” she said. “They depend on me.”

Other than a brief hiatus after the birth of her fifth child, Ms. Garcia has hardly taken any time off work. She finished the school year nine months pregnant with her third child, giving birth a week later. A fall last week that caused injury to her arm didn’t stop her either. She returned to work as scheduled after just one day off with a few bandages and an arm wrap in place. Such purpose keeps her young, she insists.

“I don’t do it to be ambitious. I’m just stubborn, I guess,” she said. “I just feel I have more to give. You can’t take that out of me.”

—Beth Hartnett


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