Ernest "Ernie" García, pictured here on September 29, 2016. He is UCR's first Hispanic graduate. Beside being a lifelong educator, he was an arts advocate. García helped spearhead San Bernardino's Garcia Center for the Arts. (Photo by Stan Lim/Digital First Media/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)
May 10, 2023

Ernest "Ernie" García, UCR’s first Hispanic graduate, dies

García, class of 1955, made positive impacts as an educator and as an arts lover

Author: Sandra Baltazar Martínez
May 10, 2023

Ernest “Ernie” García, educator, community advocate, and UC Riverside’s first Hispanic graduate, has passed away. Garcia died April 5, he was 93. 

García’s life was full of many firsts. He enrolled at UCR in 1954 to complete his undergraduate education. He was 25 years old then and had just returned from serving in the Korean War. He graduated in 1955 with a bachelor’s in social sciences.  

García’s parents, Apolonio García and Guadalupe Félix, settled in Colton in 1919 and had four children, García was the youngest. As a teen growing up in Colton, one of his first jobs was as an orange and potato picker. The older agriculture workers respected him for his tenacious work skills — at one point he was able to pick and fill 100 boxes of oranges a day. The other agricultural workers nicknamed him “el cienero,” the Spanish word for one hundred. The term commanded respect from the older workers, something that always made García proud, said his widow and wife of 70 years, Dorothy García.

García attended Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, now called Woodrow Wilson Elementary, in Colton during an era of racial segregation. It wasn’t until he went to Colton High School that he attended an integrated school, Dorothy recalls. Dorothy, 91, herself is a retired Inland Empire educator who obtained her Ph.D. from the University of La Verne.  

Much of García’s approach to life focused on helping the community. He enlisted as a reserve with the U.S. Air National Guard and when the Korean War broke in the early 1950s he was deployed to Japan as part of the Air Force. There García served as a staff sergeant in charge of supplies.    

Ernest "Ernie" García, UC Riverside's first Hispanic graduate pictured in this 1954 photo (second from top right). (UCR/ Special Collections 1954 Yearbook)

Upon his return, García enrolled at the then newest UC, UCR, in 1954. As a student he helped select UCR’s first iteration of a mascot, Lady MacTavish of Walpole, known to UCR students as Buttons, a pedigreed Scottish Terrier.

García was on campus on March 17, 2023, for UCR’s Pioneer Class Reunion. The event’s memory book included a light-hearted note written by García where he recounted stepping onto campus in the spring of 1954 and he and his classmates sketching their names on fresh concrete, slabs that now lay in the courtyard near Coffee Bean. 

In the memory book, García wrote: 

“The senior class was made up of ‘short-timers,’ those who had at least three years of college earned someplace else. Some of us had served in the Korean War and had been waiting for UCR to open. In 1955, 17 of us were in UCR’s first graduating class. After I had been elected representative of the senior class to the fledgling ASB, I chose to focus on the selection of the mascot for UCR. One classmate was often accompanied to classes by his Scottish Terrier, a cute little rascal who caused interest for a possible mascot. Then some creative mind offered ‘Highlanders.’ I thought we should have a catchy and unusual mascot that would make us known immediately! I came up with coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon). Among others, ASB President Chuck Young was set against it, particularly when it appeared some votes for mundis might be there! The first intercollegiate team on campus was basketball. I made the cut, but Coach Lindy made it very clear that if coatimundi even came close to winning, most if not all of my time would be on the bench.”

Ernest "Ernie" García, UC Riverside's first Hispanic graduate pictured in this 1955 photo. (UCR/ Special Collections 1955 Yearbook)

Although his stay at UCR was brief, his memories of the campus were many, Dorothy said. Dorothy gave birth to their eldest son in 1953, so it was not uncommon for García to be seen on campus with their toddler son.

“During his time at UC Riverside, Ernie played on the men’s basketball team. He would often say that UC Riverside had the ‘perfect season’ — they lost every game,” Dorothy jokingly recalled during a recent telephone conversation. Post-graduation Garcia continued coming to campus as a men's basketball season ticket holder and attended community gatherings. 

García understood the power of education and wanted all children to have greater access. 

“Ernie was pleased with UCR’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution,” Dorothy said. “It was very important to him that UCR have that designation.”

Throughout his career as a teacher and administrator, García also developed his love for art. It was a love mutually shared, Dorothy said. Their dedication to the arts became a physical space in 2015 when the couple helped establish The Garcia Center for the Arts in downtown San Bernardino. 

This passion for the arts was something García learned early on at home. It wasn’t uncommon for him to take discarded items and recreate them into new art pieces.

Dorothy too found love for art during her years as a kindergarten teacher. The couple began their teaching careers in Barstow after taking classes at the University of Redlands and obtaining emergency teaching credentials. 

In 1961, after having worked as coordinator and curriculum consultant in the Rialto Unified School District, he became the principal of George Dunn Elementary School. 

García received a Ph.D. in Education from UCLA in 1966. He became a professor at the University of Redlands and later at Cal State University, San Bernardino. In 1979, he became the dean of CSUSB’s School of Education, where he served for 11 years until his retirement in 1990. 

In 1994, UCR recognized his community impact by including him in its “40 Alumni Who Make a Difference” list. 

Ernest "Ernie" García, pictured here on September 29, 2016. He is UCR's first Hispanic graduate. Beside being a lifelong educator, he was an arts advocate. García helped spearhead San Bernardino's Garcia Center for the Arts. (Photo by Stan Lim/Digital First Media/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

García’s imprint is still palpable throughout the Inland Empire. Rialto Unified School District named the Dr. Ernest Garcia Elementary School after him, which opened in 1994 and its mascot is coincidently a bear too, The Grizzlies. In an April 9, 2023 Twitter message school officials noted “The RUSD regrets to share the passing of Dr. Ernest Garcia, namesake of Garcia Elementary School. Dr. Garcia was a trailblazer. Our thoughts & deepest condolences are with his wife, Dr. Dotti Garcia.”

Various community groups recognize García’s contributions, including UNIDOS, a Riverside-based Chicano Latino collective focused on supporting community growth. UNIDOS is a stout supporter of the arts, including the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture (The Cheech) in downtown Riverside. Many of UNIDOS’s members are UCR alumni.  

In a June 2022 event, UNIDOS awarded Garcia the Chicano Community Award during its annual Cheech Gala. The recognition denoted his contributions in the arts and positive impact in the Inland Empire.  

The imprint García and Dorothy have made in the IE is beyond measurable, said Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, current Riverside Art Museum Board of Trustees president and two-time UCR alumna. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1969 and earned an elementary teaching credential in 1971.

Valdez-Yeager first met García in the early 1970s when she was a 23-year-old teacher at Cucamonga Elementary School in Rancho Cucamonga. García supervised the bilingual education program known as the Title VII Elementary and Secondary Education Act. 

“We didn’t see him every day, but when he came around, he had this great personality. He was a charmer, jovial. It was wonderful to see someone who looked like us, someone who was outstanding,” Valdez-Yeager said. 

Valdez-Yeager followed García’s career throughout the decades and was always impressed at how he both exuded modesty and was simultaneously a force. 

And as the first Hispanic student who graduated from UCR, García cemented the path for other Chicano/Latinos who came after him, including herself, Valdez-Yeager said. 

“Ernie represented us well, to say the least. He was educated, inclusive, charming,” Valdez-Yeager said. “He did this without saying or showing off all his accomplishments. He wore that badge proudly but quietly.”     

García is preceded in death by his parents and three older siblings. He is survived by his wife Dorothy Garcia, his sons Timothy, Steven and wife Diane, and Patrick and wife Deon, and five grandchildren, Zachary, Emma, Katelyn, Grant, and Matthew.

Ernie García was on campus on March 17, 2023, for UCR’s Pioneer Class Reunion. (UCR)

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