When it boils down to the professional world, industries and career paths seem so obvious. Upon closer look, however, people are in positions that few think about as lifelong occupations. Ventura County residents abide in many seldom-examined fields.

The groundskeeper

James Garcia of Ventura

“People are a little scared of death. They ask me if I am scared,” says James Garcia of Ventura, a man decidedly full of life, for whom Conejo Mountain Funeral Home, Memorial Park and Crematory in Camarillo was literally home. “This place was my backyard,” he said in a recent interview on property. His story is about the cycle of life and continuity.

Garcia’s dad, Joe, worked as a feeder at Adohr Farms in 1976, adjacent to the cemetery. When he got laid off he applied to work for landowner Mary Smith. Smith’s family had owned for 40 years the agricultural property, which they developed into a cemetery in 1965. She offered him a job as groundskeeper and a space on property for a home. James was born that same year.

His childhood was a rural one that included fishing Conejo Creek, riding dirt bikes, and helping his father with his work. At 14 he began officially working for his dad as part of the staff. “I think that’s what kept me on the straight-and-narrow path,” he recalled. Fortunately hands-on work came naturally to James.

Now James has his late father’s job. His duties include supervising a staff of eight, digging burial spaces with backhoes, caring for the soil and foliage, trimming headstones and interfacing with other management staff. He says that there are over 300 funerals per year at the property. Adjacent plots of land include a privately owned rock quarry, a lemon grove and various vegetable fields. Some are part of the property but leased out to farmers.

Garcia doesn’t see his job as morbid, scary or even death-oriented because death is part of the life cycle, and he gets to be a part of thousands of people’s cycles, including the families and friends of those resting at peace.

Although he married, moved off the property at age 25 and had two children, James has never had another job. The cemetery is now owned by Carriage Services. During transitional periods of ownership James considered other possibilities, but they didn’t feel right.  Mary Smith herself is buried there, as are Garcia’s dad and his grandparents.

His grandmother was buried apart from his grandfather because a pine tree was in the way. But once the tree itself died, Joe Garcia bought the plot next to his own father and is now buried there. James has already purchased the plot next to his dad and grandpa for himself. A beautiful water fountain at the top of the property is dedicated to his father with a plaque.

His favorite aspect of the job is bonding with people who come to pay their respects to their loved ones. “I run into them in town throughout my life and we always share a special bond,” he said.

Although someone else now inhabits his childhood home, a tribute to his family history remains literally etched in the cement outside the front gate. His dad, Joe, carved “Garcia Family 1994” into the pavement all those years ago.

Tutor in sparking discussion

Steven Cain of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula

Who knew that Steven Cain’s teenage visit to Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula would lead to his marriage, his life’s work and a home in Ventura County? That’s what happened after the secular Episcopalian from Florida visited his Catholic former classmate who was studying at Aquinas.

Imagine spending your day discussing great books and sharing a sense of destiny and purpose with a collection of motivated young folks. Now imagine making a nice living doing so.

Although he did not attend school there, he converted to Catholicism after visiting. He also married a young Aquinas student who prayed for his future when she first met him. Their futures intersected when both found themselves doing graduate work in Boston. Six children later and they are still together.

After teaching on the East Coast, Cain jumped at the chance to teach at Aquinas when a position opened in 1998. His wife got to return to her alma mater, and now Cain teaches with his old high-school buddy, who inspired him all those years ago.

“I like that I am not a lecturer. Our classes proceed by means of discussion. We sit together at a table, and I ask a question intended to spark a discussion,” Cain said. Teachers are referred to as “tutor” because they are part of the class, not apart from it, and everyone takes the same classes.

“We consider the authors of the great works to be the primary teachers,” Cain says. He has taught theology, philosophy, natural science, mathematics, literature, and language. He earned his B.A. in physics and classics, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy.

“We ask our students to more or less withdraw from the world of action so that they can consider dispassionately the fundamental questions about nature and human existence. That will guide them through the world of action when they leave here,” Cain says.

Everyone receives the same B.A. in liberal arts. Students read original texts by thinkers like Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Marx and Maxwell. There are about 400 students, so Cain and his colleagues have a chance to get to know almost everyone personally. “We eat lunch and go to Mass together. All that we do in the curriculum is done under the notion of faith seeking understanding,” he added.

“Our teaching is by way of discussion of the books of greater minds than ours. That is not to say that I don’t have ideas about what might be right or wrong in a particular book, and I am free to give my opinion, but so, too, are the students. This often leads to disagreements in our classes. But since the discussions are conducted in an atmosphere of friendship, these differences are opportunities to arrive at a deeper understanding of the concepts.” 

Despite the egalitarian nature of class discussions, Cain is still the leader and authority figure. “The equality is not absolute. It is recognized that I am more experienced in these things and so am there to guide the discussion, to keep order and ensure that we make some progress.” But that approach does explain his job title as “tutor.” Cain teaches 10-12 classes a week at 60-90 minutes each.

Wound up

Lauren Roerich of Oxnard

“It’s definitely one of the most unique things about me,” said Lauren Roerich about her part-time career as a professional harpist. The Pepperdine University freshman from Oxnard has been playing the large stringed instrument since she was 8 years old.

She fell in love with the harp when she heard one played at a wedding. Since then she’s appeared at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through the Conejo Valley Youth Symphony and at the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee. Along the way she honed her skills at “Harp Intensive” camps and competitions.

Roerich plays weddings, parties, funerals and other special events. “The most popular events are weddings, since the harp is such an elegant, romantic instrument that adds a peaceful beauty,” she explained.

Her rates depend on travel distance and the type of event, but generally her performance costs $250 for the first hour and $50 for each additional hour. She has played at Aegis Living in Ventura, Camarillo Library and several churches in Ventura County.

While pursuing a minor in music at college, she also participates in a woodwind ensemble and symphony at school. She has to practice an hour per day and transports her instrument in a van she calls the Harpmobile. Upkeep of the instrument can be expensive and often requires ordering parts online.

Lauren taught harp for a year in high school and hopes to get back into it. “Teaching was one of my greatest joys. It makes me really happy to share something that I am passionate about.”

GigMasters is a site that really works for her. “It’s fantastic because it makes it so easy now for anyone to hire musicians. For gigs, harp is generally played alone, although I would be open to playing with other instruments. Usually, clients do not ask for that though. I have played with flutists, violinists and vocalists.”

Roerich owns four harps, including a Concert Grand, 6 feet tall with 47 strings; a petite pedal harp used for gigs; and a portable Irish Celtic harp.

“There is a side of harp that a lot of people don’t know,” she explained. A harpist with good rhythm can make the transition from classical to contemporary.

Although she has no interest in playing for movies or television, she is open to learning popular styles. But formal events are her specialty. “I want to do more weddings and church events. That’s where my heart is at. I see the joy.”

Iron Maiden

Stacy Hyatt of Santa Paula

How many women can say that they were attending horseshoeing school while they were seven-months pregnant? That’s what blacksmith/farrier Stacy Hyatt did 22 years ago in Arizona. The Ventura native grew up riding horses in Wheeler Canyon. That’s when her love for the gentle giants began. It’s a labor of love because her work is both backbreaking and complex.

“All the blacksmiths I knew growing up seemed to slap shoes on horses without really evaluating their needs,” she said while reminiscing. “I see a lot of horses with arthritis or joint issues. I fully evaluate a new client to see how I might help.” She continued her education at clinics and seminars, studying the anatomy and kinesiology of horses.

“I love my job. I get to be at a different ranch every day.” This includes seeing eight to 10 horses per day, from Santa Barbara to Palmdale. She practices a trimming method called Natural Balance, which replicates what the horse’s hooves would look like in the wild. Because she’s on the move, she uses a mobile service kit with all her supplies and equipment.

This includes a forge to heat the metal shoes, and a hammer and anvil to make a custom-fit. None of this hurts the horse because it involves a part of the hoof that has no nerves.

Hyatt lives on 35 acres in Santa Paula and owns several horses. One of her two daughters trains them. She says that there are probably about 15 female farriers out of 100 in her region. “It’s tough. You’re under a 1,200 pound horse. But women bring that tender loving care factor to the job.”

One of her ambitions is to start a school for aspiring professionals. “There’s a desperate need for more good farriers,” she said. She also attends industry seminars and events, like the Hoof Care Summit in Cincinnati. “You can make six figures in this field. My family thinks it’s great.

She is reluctant to brag about her accomplishments, but she emphasizes her pride in her full service and holistic approach. “The pros like my work.”  It’s a team effort along with the horse owner. Hyatt recalls the old saying, “No hoof, no horse.”

If you or someone you know is in a unique profession and would like to be considered for a future article, send name, profession and a synopsis of the work to editor@vcreporter.com.