The first time John Heimaster set his sights on Cuyamaca College, rattlesnakes and rabbits were more plentiful than people. There was no library. No cafeteria. No gymnasium. There were hardly any classrooms.
“We turned off Jamacha Road onto a bumpy dirt drive with only concrete curbs directing the way in, passed a sign that said `Cuyamaca College’ and there was not a building in sight,” Heimaster recalled. “No apartments. No shopping mall. No Water Garden. No Heritage of the Americas museum, only open fields.”
In the 37 years since, the grounds supervisor has played a pivotal role in the transformation of the 165-acre college into one of the most beautiful campuses in the region. He was part of the crew when the Grand Lawn was created three decades ago. And he and his crew have planted Torrey pines and cork oaks from seeds that blossomed into mature trees now providing canopies of shade from students, faculty and staff seeking a peaceful oasis in their busy day.
“I’ve watched tipu trees that were planted grow to over 50 feet high.”
But Heimaster, who began working for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in 1978 and came to Cuyamaca College a year later, has decided to retire. His last official day with the district is Oct. 30.
“John’s really going to miss this place,” said Heimaster’s wife, Pam, whom he met at Cuyamaca College more than 30 years ago. “He’d call me every morning and describe how the sun was rising over the mountains, what the clouds looked like, what the colors were that morning.”
Indeed, Heimaster – who got to work in the wee hours of the morning – didn’t see his job so much as a place of employment. He saw it as a gift from God, an occupation that allowed him to witness nature’s beauty on a daily basis.
“It is absolutely beautiful here in the mornings,” Heimaster says. On any given day you’ll hear someone on the two-way radio say, `Hey, guys, don’t miss this sunrise! It’s amazing!’”
His was a circuitous route to Cuyamaca College.
Heimaster was born in Lebanon, Mo., but moved to Spring Valley with his family when he was 3 and he grew up in the East County, graduating from Mount Miguel High School in 1971. Heimaster opted to move back to Missouri and was working in a Zenith television plant during a brutally cold, icy winter when he received a Christmas letter and an accompanying photo from family back in San Diego.
“We had just gone through a freezing rain, and in the background of the picture from Lemon Grove you could see the sun shining through the door and an orange tree in the yard,” Heimaster said. “I figured it was time to move back.”
It wasn’t long before he found work as a lead groundskeeper at Helix High School in La Mesa, a job that led to a gig as a gardener at the Grossmont Union High School District. In 1978, he parlayed that experience to land a groundskeeping job at Grossmont College.
“One day, the grounds supervisor for the college district, Ken Clark, came in the lounge area where we were sitting, looked at me and said, `You live in Lemon Grove. How about you going to take care of Cuyamaca College.’”
Before long, Heimaster had become the grounds supervisor at Cuyamaca College. Over the years, he has earned a number of awards and recognitions, including the Chancellor/Classified Senate Award in 2001, the Cuyamaca College Appreciation Award in 1988, and several certificates of appreciation from Occupational Training Services, Inc., for his work with the Hire-A-Youth Program.
“A great boss,” said Jesse Wilson, who worked on the grounds crew at Cuyamaca College during the summers of 2000 and 2001 while in high school. “He’s patient with everyone he works with. A very calming influence.”
Wilson gets no argument from Pedro Alvarado, a senior custodian who has known Heimaster for more than a quarter century. “He’s a good guy,” Alvarado said. “He does a lot to keep the grounds here presentable and beautiful.”
Despite the changes over the years, Heimaster says one thing has remained constant.
“The college has always remained committed to the student. It’s always been about the students, serving the students and ensuring they’re getting a good education,” Heimaster said. “The landscaping has always been part of the effort to create a more relaxing, natural environment for the student.”