Ortiz driven to mechanics

A.R Broom, [email protected]

Born in 1957, Automotive Technology instructor Earl Ortiz is right in the middle of the Baby Boomers generation, which set him up experience the golden ages of American muscle cars as a child.

Ortiz fondly recalled that as young as 6 years old, he was attending drag races just down the street from his childhood home in Fremont.

“I just loved the smell of that fuel. I used to stand right behind the water box and get sprayed with rubber and I had to wipe it off when I got home. My mom wouldn’t let me in the house,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz estimates he had around 300 model automobiles that he built, painted, mixed and matched parts for inside that house, but at the age of 12 he decided it was time to upgrade.

In 1969 Ortiz purchased his first vehicle, a 1937 Ford pickup truck, which he still owns to this day. From that point on, Ortiz started gaining experience repairing, maintaining and restoring vehicles.

Ortiz later joined an owners club of Ford Skyliners, a popular hardtop convertible, after another owner approached his own Skyliner.

“When I joined that club it got me dialed in… Here I am 16, 17 years old repairing their cars,” said Ortiz.

As satisfying as it was to have all that know-how as a teenager, Ortiz found himself wanting to be more than a mechanic.

“Back in that time if your worked on cars you were considered as really nobody,” said Ortiz. “That term grease monkey really did stick in my head.”

After another club member told him computers were going to be the future, Ortiz decided he needed to have a part in that and shunned away the side of him that enjoyed working on cars.

“I went into the Air Force,” said Ortiz, “I looked for something computer related and I wanted to be on an airplane.”

In the Air Force, Ortiz worked with and repaired the Bomb Navigation Computer Systems on B-52 Stratofortresses, but he found that the work wasn’t engaging.

Eventually Ortiz wound up with an injury that resulted in a discharge from the service, although he doesn’t look back on that time with disdain.

“I had to go try that computer deal try that air force and it all of a sudden set me free,” said Ortiz.

“The moment that I wrapped my hands around the idea that I belong to cars my whole life changed, because I did resist it. I just didn’t feel like that was my career path,” Ortiz added.

After Ortiz came to that realization, he went all in and learned everything he could about repairing and restoring automobiles.

“There’s nothing on a car that I cannot fix,” Ortiz said, “I did everything just by pure, true grit.”

Eventually Ortiz opened up his own shop with success, but while he enjoyed working on the cars, he found he didn’t want to deal with the owners who liked to linger around the shop while he worked.

Ortiz decided he had had enough and in 1995 he enrolled in a summer course at the Los Medanos College to obtain a license as a smog technician.

“I’m gonna be the smog monkey in the back and I’m never gonna talk to another customer,” said Ortiz.

After completing the course, Ortiz decided he would take another the next semester. Around six weeks in the course’s instructor approached Ortiz with a job.

Ortiz assumed there was a car to work on, but when the instructor responded saying there was no car, Ortiz was surprised.

“I am a grease monkey. I am a car guy. I am not a teacher,” said Ortiz.

His instructor continued to try to sway Ortiz’s position until he said to himself, “You know what, it’s worth a shot.”

In the spring of 1996 Ortiz began teaching full-time at LMC.

“I found my life mission, I found my home. It was absolutely from like heaven; it answered all my requests,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz has taught at LMC ever since, but his story doesn’t end there. Almost every day Ortiz can be seen in the shop, helping students get the hands-on experience they need to make it in the field.

As students were finishing their work, Ortiz paused to interact with them, sign-off on jobs well done, and even test the brake pedal-feel a student wasn’t sure about. His expertise immediately shows as he notes it was normal for the manufacturer to have the soft initial pedal-feel during that time.

“They are my students, but to me they are like grandchildren,” said Ortiz. “There are times where I stand here and I look around and think, ‘Wow I get paid to be here.’ It is amazing.”

Although Ortiz hasn’t been part of LMC’s Automotive Technology program from the start, he has seen the program grow over the past couple of decades.

“I watched this program grow from being a small, one-room place,” said Ortiz.  “I wanted to make this as professional as possible. I wanted to make sure that we were a full-service shop working on real jobs.”

The live-shop aspect makes the education even more valuable.  “When I see that this place made a difference it makes everything in my life worthwhile,” said Ortiz.

Some of Ortiz’s students even decided they liked the program so much that they come back to teach. “It was very rewarding to have my fellow students come back,” said Ortiz.

Looking ahead, Ortiz shows concern for the cars of today being more like appliances. “These old cars will still be around,” he said but, “as far as the future goes, who knows?”

Looking back, Ortiz said, “I had a passion for cars, but my brain was telling me ‘No, no, no.’ I needed to embrace what I was meant to do—work on cars— I was set free. I followed my passion and it brought me to this wonderful place.”

His advice for those looking to find their calling: “You’ve got to experiment.”