Cambrian: Opinion

Friend’s passing reveals details of a life not fully known

Diane Brooke
Diane Brooke

It’s amazing to me how long you can know someone and not really know the person. I realize this fact is what keeps life interesting, the finding out part, as well as what keeps friends growing together.

A dear, dear friend of 34 years just left this earthly plane and, among the tears, I’m smiling over the things that have surfaced. His family, his old friends, start sharing stories, as is want to happen in times like this. We all have our stories, if we take time to share and to hear them!

John Rivera was married to my best friend of 40 years, Stephanie Arehart, back in 1988 and they have two beautiful sons, Sam and Maxx, both of whom grew up in Cambria and have gone on through college. They both have their dad’s sparkle in their eyes! A quick wit, skilled hands and patience are the practical gifts he bestowed upon them. Many, many folks know that.

John was born in 1948 in Santa Barbara, second among four brothers. Life could only be interesting!

“He attended Franklin Elementary and Santa Barbara Junior High and anticipated being a Don at Santa Barbara High School like our big brother, Felix Jr. Circumstances sent him to San Marcos High School. Naturally, John just took it as a chance to make more friends! It also laid the groundwork for his part in the memorable defeat of the powerhouse Dons in football for the first time by the SMHS Royals! To this day, folks remember John fondly not only for his athletic skill but his incredibly friendly demeanor,” brother Jimmie said.

I know many Vietnam vets, and John was one of them. But he never really shared any stories of that time. One of his closest friends and military buddies, Harry, shared, “After graduation in 1966, as the draft was looming large for many of his classmates, John joined the Air Force. From 1967 to ’68, he was on tour in Cam Rahn Bay, South Vietnam in the Tactical Fighter Wing Munitions Maintenance Squadron. His duty was as a “BB Stacker,” which meant unloading semi trucks loaded with bare bombs as quickly as possible, attaching the fins and arming the devices to be loaded onto bombers just as quickly.

He was present on the night of the Tet Offensive. He was off-duty, playing poker when all hell broke loose with mortars and guns going off around the base. The guys threw on their helmets and flak vests and jumped into a sandbag bunker with their bottle of vodka, scared to death – as anyone in their right mind would be!

After Vietnam, he was stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Glendale, Ariz., again in munitions. He was discharged in 1970. Now, mind you, the Air Force was cutting numbers but they liked John so well, they pressed him hard to become a lifer. He felt, however, they were using a race card to get him to stay, that there was “no life for a guy his color on the outside.”

He was of Puerto Rican heritage. He did not re-enlist. I’ve always respected John for his calm manner … these life experiences certainly put life into perspective.

Sometimes you share stories with your friends but forget them. Like that he pursued higher education by starting at Santa Barbara City College, where he exceled in the classroom and played on the football team with his younger brothers, Fred and Jimmie. All three of the Rivera boys had the best time of their football careers playing and enjoying the college lifestyle. Interpret that as you may! He also attended UCLA and then graduated with a degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara.

After a few jobs like delivering for 7Up and a short-order cook for Howard Johnsons, he made his way into the California State Parks system, eventually at Hearst Castle State Historical Monument as a park ranger. As always, he was great at his job. But, as fellow ranger and friend, Steve Finch, recalls, after having to shoot a deer that was suffering, he asked to hang up his badge. He couldn’t bear to kill or hurt anything. State Parks granted that request in the mid 80s, and he was made head of maintenance there in San Simeon and finished up his career at Morro Bay State Park.

He may not have wanted to carry a gun, but it was at this time that he met his future wife, Stephanie, and was ready to disarm her! All the ladies had their eyes on John, but he set his cap for this blond beauty the moment he met her. He waited until she was available and then moved on in, smooth as ever. They continued to live in the beautiful home they built here in Cambria ever since. It was a place all the kids would hang out at, and where warm gatherings were held.

And then there are the stories you are more familiar with, from the days you spent, perhaps, side-by-side with someone. While working and in retirement, John was a tireless volunteer in Cambria. He thoroughly enjoyed coaching elementary school kids in soccer and basketball. He was integral to the Colts youth football league and also helped the high school football program. Both his boys were active and he was there- but not only for his own kids- he was honestly and wholeheartedly there for any and every kid that came out. Even if they weren’t in sports or drama as his sons were, John looked out for them all.

His easygoing and helpful manner and fluent Spanish also made him a go-to guy for many members of the community who may have needed something. Whether it was the high school booster club or any number of community fundraisers and events, John was there helping out.

Even without knowing someone’s history, you can know how much you enjoy their company. John could make anyone feel immediately comfortable, very often made us laugh, sometimes shake our head in disbelief (he had no problem dressing up as James Brown or a woman or … ) and left everyone he came in contact with feeling a little better than before.

It is the strangest feeling writing, “He is survived by his wife, Stephanie Arehart, sons Sam and Maxx Rivera, mother, Merin Rivera, brothers Felix Jr. (Cean), Fred (Diane) and Jimmie (Liz), mother-in-law, Judy Arehart (Gene), brother-in-law Steve (Kathy), sister-in-law Jill (Betz), nieces Monica, Kathleen, Tina, Gina, Maria and nephew Solomon, extended family and an extremely vast array of friends and admirers near and far! The Boys Club will never be the same!” I am still in denial. I know many of you have felt that way about a loved one.

I’d also like to share that John was a voracious reader with mystery and science fictions novels being his favorites. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Cambria Education Foundation “Library Fund in Honor of John Rivera” at’s sad not to know some of these things, important things, sometimes, like what to do with your earthly remains, how you even feel about the prospect of dying – hard stories to ask and to get your head around because those are such deep parts of the heart, tender parts, that are hard to touch. I hope I didn’t fail you, John, in not asking. I’m guessing it’s OK after all these years. Thank you.

Dianne Brooke’s column appears weekly and is special to The Cambrian. Visit her website at Email her at

Celebration of life

A celebration of John’s life will take place Sunday, June 4, 2017 from 1 p.m. until dusk at the grassy area at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach (The Cove). There will be a tri-tip and chicken barbecue provided, but you are asked to bring a dish to share, BYOB and beach chair. A memory book for Sam and Maxx will be available for you to share your stories and photos in, of which there are many.