Just out of the Navy at 23 years old, John Gearing was looking for work when he heard about a job at the Arroyo Grande Cemetery.
He applied and was hired the same day.
“The older generation was retiring,” Gearing recalled recently during an interview at the cemetery. “They immediately needed employees.”
He didn’t intend to stay so long. But the work was outside, his co-workers were friendly, and soon bonds developed and Gearing stayed.
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Now, at nearly 65 years old and the cemetery foreman, Gearing is wrapping up a career that’s spanned more than 41 years.
“It’s kind of old-fashioned to be loyal,” said Mike Marsalek, the cemetery manager, who has known Gearing since the two played Little League together. He started at the cemetery about a month after Gearing.
“We have an unusual job,” Marsalek said. “We have to have empathy. John puts people at ease. He’s a virtuous human being.”
Then, he added jokingly to Gearing, “That’s all you get for your $20.”
Gearing joked back and Marsalek left to continue landscape work on one section of the cemetery.
Spanning 21 acres, there is always work to be done: mowing, trimming, dealing with gophers, digging graves with a backhoe, and delicately helping families make arraignments for a loved one to be buried there. Gearing has handled all of this, and more.
Gearing grew up in Arroyo Grande, where he played baseball throughout his youth, including at Arroyo Grande High. After graduation in 1967, he studied forestry for a few years at Lassen Community College in Susanville, in northeastern California, before joining the U.S. Navy.
Gearing spent three years on a ship supplying ammunition to soldiers, other ships and planes bound for Vietnam. With his home port in the Philippines, Gearing picked up some Tagalog, the language of an ethnic group of the same name.
Gearing, who has had a lifelong penchant for history and languages, still speaks some Tagalog with Filipinos who visit the cemetery. Likewise, he’s picked up some Gaelic from a frequent Irish visitor, and occasionally speaks German with another guest.
“You befriend a lot of people here,” Gearing said, simply.
The Arroyo Grande Cemetery off El Camino Real was founded in 1882 and now has more than 14,000 people buried there. Despite the steady hum of traffic from nearby Highway 101, the cemetery is peaceful. A woman visiting the cemetery once called it “the silent city,” Gearing said.
Sometimes, he sees people stop by the cemetery to eat their lunch or read or walk.
“It’s a great place to walk,” Gearing said. “One man said he walks for exercise ‘because I don’t want to be in here.’”
Sometimes, when weeding around a headstone, Gearing will stop to read the epitaph. He can recite some from memory: “Buried in a distant land. Buried by a stranger’s hand,” reads one.
“Sailed around the horn in 1849,” reads another.
“Can’t you see the pioneer’s spirit?” Gearing asked.
One of the most famous graves belongs to Otis W. Smith, a Civil War veteran who received the Medal of Honor.
On Dec. 16, 1864, Smith captured the flag of the 6th Florida Infantry during the Battle of Brentwood Hills near Nashville. Smith came to California in 1905 and died March 10, 1923.
Gearing’s own parents and his uncle are buried there, too.
Gearing made a will and bought a companion space near them about 17 years ago when his wife of 38 years, Beckie, received a kidney transplant. (The successful surgery allowed her to end nearly five years of dialysis.)
Now, John Gearing is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, reading and improving his ham radio skills.
But leaving the cemetery, he said, “is surreal. It’s a finalization of your working time.”