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Brad Monroe retired after spending more than three decades as a leader in horticultural education in San Diego County. While his career may seem like the culmination of a careful plan, in many ways it was anything but.

Sitting in a classroom at Cuyamaca College, Brad had to laugh as he recalled steps that brought him here in the 1980s to head the new college’s new ornamental horticulture department. “I can’t really say planning is my strongest suit,” he says. “But somehow … things worked out.”

A native Californian, Brad grew up on his family’s 60-acre farm in the small town of Hughson, outside of Modesto. A century of farming linked both his mother’s and father’s families and Brad was poised to carry on the tradition. He, his brother Keith and sister Betty worked in the family orchards that produced peaches, nuts and grapes, enduring good years and bad from the post-war era through the 1960s.

“Farming is hard work,” Brad says. “They used to say that every kid who worked on a ranch went to college, because they knew they didn’t want to go back to farming. But there are lots of rewards in farming. And that’s what I planned to do.”

Brad majored in plant science at Modesto Junior College and then earned a bachelor’s degree at Fresno State University in 1972. Earlier, he had taken a semester off to travel with a friend around the U.S., and after graduation, he decided to take another break.

“I told a friend I wanted to go someplace warm in winter,” Brad recalls. “‘Phoenix - I think I’ll go there.’ But my friend said, ‘No way. How about San Diego?’” Brad agreed. After a six month stay, he’d go back to the farm and farming. At least, that was the plan.

It was 1972, and unemployment in sunny San Diego topped 10 percent. Brad searched for three months before landing work on a landscape crew for 25 cents an hour above minimum wage. “I had taken courses in ornamental horticulture and liked them,” he says. “But I didn’t think I’d end up working in that area.”

His six month stay lengthened into a year and then another year. By then, he was a crew supervisor, running equipment, putting in irrigation systems and the like. For recreation, he took a ceramics class. “I really liked throwing pots,” he says, so when the instructor asked him to fill in as the class TA (teaching assistant), he quickly accepted.

To his delight, “I discovered I loved being on the other side of the desk. I loved teaching,” he says. Eager to do more, he decided to build on the era’s house plant craze and teach an adult education class on their care. With a course outline banged out on his typewriter, he started working his way from South Bay to North County looking for a home for his first class.

One stop was Southwestern College where he wrangled a meeting with Dean Vince Alfaro. “I was so naive I thought his first name was Dean,” Brad says, with a laugh. The dean dismissed his course but proposed starting an ROP (Regional Occupation Program) horticulture program instead. “I didn’t know what ROP was either,” he admits, “But I agreed to attend a meeting on it because the dean said it could mean a full-time job for me.”

Two months later, “I was building a department and in a classroom, teaching full time. I had 18 hours of lectures and labs to develop every week along with building a field site and curriculum. It’s a good thing I was young, single and dumb,” he says of his first higher education position. “But I loved teaching. I was being paid $14,000, which was more money than I could imagine. I was left alone to do what I liked.

“Slowly I got the idea – I was not going back to farming.”

Through the late 1970s, Brad’s love of teaching grew along with Southwestern’s horticulture program. “I really enjoyed the students. They are very enthusiastic; they wanted to be there. And they came with a variety of life skills. Many had other careers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a prospective student say, ‘I’ve always had an interest in horticulture, but didn’t know I could make a living at it.’

“When I was a student, I doubt I said a word in class, even though I’m really an outgoing person. As a teacher, I felt I knew the material and how to put it together to help students learn. I was comfortable – and felt fortunate to be there. I had no intention to leave.”

But once again, Brad’s career “plan” changed. This time, the impetus was word of a new horticultural department at a new college, Cuyamaca College in El Cajon. “There was already competition since Mesa, MiraCosta and Southwestern had departments,” Brad recalls. “A friend suggested I apply and if I got called in to interview, I could get an idea of what their plans were. So I applied to be the instructor in charge of building the program.”

Brad was asked to interview, but didn’t prepare. “I was pretty casual about it all,” he says. “When they were done questioning me, I had questions for them – about 45 minutes worth. I think I surprised them…and their answers surprised me. They were constructing a building to house the department. They had land for as big a field site as needed. I thought to myself, maybe I should have prepared.”

To his surprise, he was offered the job, In January 1980, he joined the nascent department as its chair and only full-time faculty. His “staff” consisted of Diana Maranhao, who joined the department as an ornamental horticultural technician, a position she would hold for 23 years. “For a lot of years, there were only the two of us,” Brad says. “I taught four classes a semester, in addition my administrative duties. Good thing I was still young.”

Over the next 33 years, the department would grow steadily. Today it serves more than 300 full and part time students who chose among 37 classes and eight majors. About 20 adjunct instructors, many local leaders in the horticultural industry here, are recruited to teach, a move that keeps the department’s profile high among potential students and the community. To accommodate instructors and students with day jobs, the department offers night courses and schedules required lab work on alternate Saturdays.

“In talking to our students, we know that many of them are working, some in the nursery and landscape industry and some in totally unrelated fields,” Brad explains. “These students are here to move into the industry or get ahead in it. We work to make that happen. That’s one reason we offer eight different degrees built around core classes and specialized training.”

The two most popular majors – landscape design and landscape technology – include a semester-long class in irrigation, a subject that became Brad’s specialty. In 2009 his expertise was recognized by the Irrigation Association when it honored him as Person of the Year.

“When I was in college, there was no specialized course in irrigation. In fact landscape irrigation was in its infancy, borrowing a lot from the agriculture side,” Brad says. “I went to industry seminars, learned hydraulics. It’s not hard, but there’s some stuff that is counter-intuitive. There’s a lot to know to do it right and make the most the limited water we have.”

Reflecting on his decades at Cuyamaca College, Brad highlights professional – and personal accomplishments.

One is a commitment to water conservation that sparked formation of the San Diego Xeriscape Council and six regional industry conferences from 1985 to1992. “I felt we had to do something long term about water conservation,” he says of the ambitious regional gatherings. Displays at the San Diego County Fair reached out to homeowners, while turf seminars educated industry personnel.

Xeriscape, though, proved a hard sell. “People thought of it a Zero-scape – 10 tons of gravel and a wagon wheel,” he says. “I think we got the industry on board, but it took 25 years. Now we’re looking at the same uphill climb with sustainability.”

Drought-tolerant landscaping is part of sustainability, which Brad defines as “minimizing inputs – fertilizer, water, pesticides and labor – while maintaining an attractive landscape.” To raise awareness, Cuyamaca Horticulture Department held a weekend meeting seven years ago to brainstorm ways to make sustainability a part of every course taught. Since 2009, the college also has hosted a daylong Sustainability Conference open to the professional and amateur horticulturists.

Another significant achievement is a role in creation of the five-acre Water Conservation Garden on the Cuyamaca campus. Recently named by Sunset magazine as one of the 10 must-see gardens on the West Coast, the 14-year-old garden hosts a fall festival and has joined the Ornamental Horticulture Department in its annual Spring Garden Festival. The garden also offers monthly classes and programs for school students.

“My contribution was as a facilitator,” he says. When local water authorities raised the need for a demonstration garden, they thought there might be campus land available and help from students to maintain it. “I helped them get access to the land, but said no to the student help,” he says. “When costs to build it were estimated at $3.5 million, I thought it wouldn’t happen. But Helix and Otay water districts put up enough money for it to be built in one fell swoop.”

Creation of student internships also is a point of pride. Initially, the Rice Family Foundation contributed funding for internships that fund student work in Horticulture Department endeavors, like its handsome, well-stocked nursery, located just steps away from classroom and administrative offices in Building M. Today annual contributions totaling $60,000 come from a variety of sources ranging from foundations to local garden clubs.

Professional accolades mounted over the years and include Cuyamaca Faculty Member of the Year in 1995 and the college’s President’s Award in 2008. In May, he was inducted into the Green Industry Hall of Fame.

But one personal achievement stands out: “I met my wife on campus,” Brad says, “And that changed my life.” In the 1980s, Brad met Dr. Therese Botz, who was then running a student development program. Two years later they married and moved into a house near the campus that they still call home. Today Therese continues to teach at Cuyamaca where she established the American Sign Language Department.

This spring, on a cruise out of Venice, the couple celebrated Brad’s retirement with their daughter Marta Botz Monroe, who just earned an M.S. degree in occupational therapy. It was the first of what Brad hopes will be many trips, now that he is retired.

But he remains active on campus, spearheading outreach to horticultural department alums. Last year’s inaugural “Pinot and Pints” networking event is being expanded this year to include a lecture and book signing.

One retirement goal still languishes, Brad admits. His home garden is “almost embarrassing,” he says. “It’s like the cobbler whose family has no shoes. Before I retired, I wondered how I’d fill my time when I wasn’t working. But I’m busy and having a great time now. I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.”

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