For more than three decades, two instructors at Cuyamaca College have worked within hailing distance of one other, each heading an academic program they personally designed and cultivated.
Not only have Jim Custeau, the founder of the automotive technology program and Brad Monroe, the creator of the ornamental horticulture program, worked in close proximity – their careers have followed similar trajectories.
Both are products of the state community college and university systems and received their graduate degrees from National University. They were hired in 1979 as Cuyamaca College was starting up and built their programs from scratch, an opportunity the two men – then in their early 30s – took up with aplomb. This month, the coordinators of the two cornerstone programs are saying goodbye to lesson plans and the day-to-day minutiae of managing a department as retirement brings their Cuyamaca careers to a close.
“The contributions of these founding faculty members are beyond measure,” said Bill Garrett, president of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Governing Board. "Their programs have set the standard for vocational training at community colleges and have been modeled by other campuses. Countless students have benefitted from their excellence as educators and have thriving careers today because of what they’ve gained from these two instructors.”
Although Monroe and Custeau will no longer be working in the adjacent buildings where they’ve taught thousands of students, their legacies remain in the programs they’ve created and the opportunities borne of their single-minded vision: producing stellar graduates and highly skilled workers.
The programs that they’ve devoted their professional lives to are highly regarded for their academic excellence and for producing top-flight graduates. Industry partnerships have flourished as have outreach efforts and sponsorships of major college events, such as the annual Spring Garden Festival. Donor support over the years has totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For Monroe, Cuyamaca College was a second opportunity to build an ornamental horticulture program from the ground up. Five years earlier, he had done the same at Southwestern College.
“I’ve spent most of my life here at Cuyamaca and I’ve enjoyed every minute,” the Rancho San Diego resident said. “I met my wife, Therese, here – she’s the last remaining founding faculty member -- and we raised our daughter, Marta, during my years here.”
Monroe eschews the word “retirement,” saying he prefers to view the milestone as a transition to new challenges.
“I tend to look forward, not back,” he said, adding that his projects include establishing a Cuyamaca College Alumni Network for OH alumni. With the help of the Foundation for Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, he plans to set up a network of former students who have earned a degree or certificate or have even just taken a class or two in ornamental horticulture.
In addition to being a resource for program advocacy and fund-raising, the network would provide invaluable industry connections benefitting the region’s economy, Monroe said. Also, it would be a great service for local consumers looking for, say, a landscape contractor, an arborist or a floral designer.
“It would be a great way to stay connectedwith our alumni, the program and the industry,” said Monroe, who was instrumental in the college being selected in April as one of three community colleges in the state to win the inaugural Energy and Sustainability Award from the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.
While Custeau’s plans for retirement are more leisurely – spending time with his wife and six grandchildren, fly-fishing in Idaho with his brother, and improving his golf game – he, too, is committed to remaining involved in the program he started decades ago.
Upon his arrival at the Rancho San Diego campus, Custeau tossed aside the preliminary plans a consultant had drawn up for the automotive technology program and with the college president’s blessing, took a road trip to visit other Southern California colleges to see for himself what was needed to start a successful program.
“As it turns out, the best question I asked the instructors I visited was, “If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?” he said. “It was then back to my office, where I rewrote all of the curriculum and researched equipment brochures and catalogs like crazy to order tons of equipment. We rolled up the doors and began teaching in the spring of 1980 —it was a dream come true.”
Over the years, Custeau expanded the department with the addition of programs that combine intensive on-the-job training at local dealership shops with classroom and lab instruction. Graduates of the two-year program are virtually guaranteed jobs in the field with promising careers and credentials leading to higher-salary positions.
Like Monroe, Custeau sees the value of industry partnerships, and his longstanding relationship with the local chapter of the Automotive Service Council is credited for the donation of tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and tools. The annual High School Automotive Skills Day, a Cuyamaca tradition for 33 years, has benefitted hugely from the largess, with winners of the competition earning not just bragging rights as the top high school auto tech students in the county, but also taking home expensive tools and accessories of the trade.
Putting on the competition is no easy feat, requiring dozens of judges and complicated setups, but Custeau has persevered in making the auto skills day the longest-running annual event at the college, with the exception of commencement.
“I guess I’m just tenacious,” he responded when asked why he has put on the competition year after year. “The event is a really a great way for high school students to see our program and meet industry shop owners and maybe consider a career in automotives. The plan is for it to continue after I retire – I sure hope so.”
After a moment of contemplation, Custeau adds, “I’m sure I’ll be back, putting in my two cents’ worth.”