In Winter 2011, CMC Magazine made a list of “101 Reasons to Give,” a comprehensive collection of many things we love about our school, big and small. The list includes special opportunities available to our students, glowing descriptions of professors and alumni, traditions, culinary experiences and facilities. But No. 7, right between “Donald McKenna” and “Alumni Weekend”, caught my eye. The picture showed a very familiar smiling face, but underneath it a name I was not familiar with, “Cheva Garcia.” Cheva turned 88 on Tuesday, and her career as an employee at the CMC cafeteria began in 1951, when our college was a mere five years old, and many of our parents were not yet even born. In 2007, Cheva was justly recognized as an honorary member of the Alumni Association by President Gann, and described as “still going strong.” Based on my discussions with Cheva and her presence at Collins Dining Hall, that is an understatement.
To put the length of Cheva’s career here in perspective, the published list reminds us that at the time Cheva started at CMC, in 1951, her wages were 60 cents an hour. In 1951, Harry Truman was the President of the United States. In 1951, Bobby Thomson of the Brooklyn Dodgers hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the National League Pennant, I Love Lucy made its debut, and for the first time, you could make coast-to-coast phone calls in the United States. Cheva was serving Claremont Men’s College side salads with every meal, and Friday meant a special occasion at dinner: two entrees to choose from. Probably mostly meat and potatoes….and wedges of iceberg lettuce.
Cheva was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, with her nine younger siblings. She attended Claremont High School, where one of her siblings continued on to become a teacher. She gushes about the success of her family, including her five children, her nine grandchildren and her twelve great-grandchildren. Each year she flies to the East Coast to visit them, and make their favorite tamales, during the summer and the winter holidays. She grins as she tells me that she is still able to to fly across the country completely unassisted.
When Cheva began working in Collins, it was at the urging of her husband, who worked here for twelve years before he began work with the Civil Service. In 1951, CMC had only 300 students, most of them just back from serving in the war. Collins served individual meals, each complete with a glass of milk. Her first job was to prepare the condiment trays, working under a woman she describes laughingly as “older, like me now,” and frying individual eggs for students at breakfast. When Stark came to CMC as the president, she noted a big change in the system: juice became self-serve!
Since day one and true to the era of her beginnings, Cheva has made Jell-O her specialty. When you look at the Winter Dinner menu, the most elaborate of the year, you will see “Cheva’s Jell-O Dessert,” a fancier version of the Jell-O she used to make for hundreds of students every day. She smiles as she explains that the athletes were especially fond of it. She describes Jell-O as a particularly integral part of each meal.
In the midst of the discussion of so much change at CMC, I asked Cheva about the biggest changes she had observed over the past 60 years. Noting the changes in dining hall menus, in leadership and in the various catering companies, she laughed as she said “well there are girls now!” She commented on the increase in casual wear, the decrease in formality in speech, demeanor, and even in food. However, the general attitudes of the students have remained the same, she says, “positive, smiling and always appreciative.” Cheva had nothing but positive things to say about our students, and her time at the college. She calls CMC her “home away from home,” and explains that she just never felt the urge to look for another job. Everything she needed was right here. She found an even bigger family at CMC. When asked about her plans for the future, all she says is that she will “keep working as long as she feels ok”, following her comment with a beam and a pat on my arm, as if to reassure me. Cheva’s smile and her positive attitude are heartwarming, and her contributions to CMC have helped create the community of which we are proud.