Where were they then?
We ask prominent locals about their early jobs—and write about our own
Can you picture your friendly real estate agent getting dressed down for dressing down? Or Chico’s school superintendent driving a semi truck? We can, because the News & Review asked several local folks where they got their start. It may be hard to picture, but Chico’s leading philanthropist used to be a box boy.
And what about us? Where did we come from, we News & Review writers? Did we just crawl out from under rocks or some primordial writers’ ooze? Nope. We’re as normal as the rest of you—if that’s saying anything. So, we decided to pen essays about our memories of the jobs we had way back when. We hope we learned a thing or two about making an honest day’s wages, because God knows plenty of people think we’re doing the devil’s work now.
For our annual Entrepreneurs Issue, the CN&R editors looked at first jobs—our own and others'. We also profile three up-and-coming local businesses: Christian Steinbach’s restaurants, Left Coast Pizza, and Pink Cadillac Bookstore.
For Scott Schulman, slathering cream cheese on a tasty bagel is only the latest in a series of jobs that have ranged from lowly ditch digger to owning Chico businesses like Oy Vey, LaSalles, the Hatchcover restaurant, and his current business, Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Co.
“I’ve done just about everything,” he said, trying to remember his very first paying job. “I worked 48 hours a week when I was in high school.”
That was a job at a department store, but it didn’t end there. “I was a cook at the Dream Inn on Santa Cruz Boardwalk,” Schulman pondered. And a butcher’s helper. And in 1976, when he was 24, he said, “I was a bartender at the Madison Bear Garden when it first opened up.” He also delivered telephone books.
“I was a sewer pipe layer in Texas once,” he said. “We’d be down 25 feet in the ditches, and one guy’s job was to watch the sides so when it all came crashing in he’d yell, ‘Jump!’ It paid the bills while I was crossing the country as a hippie in a band.”
Another close call came when he was, at age 18, a “Mr. Softee Man” in New York. “I got robbed the first day.”
Schulman said he learned a trick of the trade that he carries with him to this day: “Customer service and finding your niche.” As an ice cream man, he quickly learned that he made more money in the African-American neighborhoods, so he focused his work there and replaced the truck’s jingle with “the Temps and the Tops. I had Motown coming out on the streets.”
PR 101: That’s a tasty burger
Ann Prater may well wish she were back at her first job as the special-order cook at a Bakersfield Burger King. Last October Prater was hired by Enloe Medical Center as its new public relations director. Prater came on as the sometimes-bitter union contract negotiations were ratcheting up into overdrive, with accusations flying from both sides and Prater trying to put positive English on press releases and sometimes-hostile questions.
Then last month came the news that Enloe was closing the Glenn Medical Center with short notice to both residents and employees. Talk about your proverbial move from the frying pan to the fire. In truth, Prater has thus far proved to have both the stamina and strength to meet the requirements of this challenging gig.
“My first job with a paycheck was at Burger King,” recalls Prater. “It was within a bike ride of my house. This was when I was about 15, 15 and a half, when Burger King had the ‘Special orders don’t upset us’ campaign. I was the special-order cook.”
Prater said that rather than shrink from such responsibility, she took it on with pride.
“I got those special orders right,” she says.
She worked the Burger King job for a few years through high school, during the school year. In the summer she had the more glamorous position of lifeguard. But when school rolled around in the fall, the Burger King job was waiting for her.
“I worked Saturday nights and a couple nights a week,” she remembers.
She was paid every other week and saved half of her checks and spent the others.
“I think more than anything I learned confidence and how to enjoy a challenge,” Prater says. “And getting all those burger orders straight was a challenge. The fact I could do it successfully was a confidence builder, even if it was just Burger King.”
She so impressed the BK owner at this first job that after she had graduated from high school and was headed to attend Humboldt State, he asked if she’d manage the new chain he was opening in Eureka. She declined the opportunity.
Maureen Pierce, director of the Boys & Girls Club, says her first real job included a monkey chained to a motorcycle.
“I was a carhop at an A&W drive-in in Redwood City,” she says. “This was in high-school, when I was a sophomore and a junior, and I remember Santana used to come in. The band members tipped really well.”
This was in 1968 and ‘69.
The good tips, she says, were only one of the perks of the job. She was spending her nights at the top local social gathering spot for people her age and getting paid for it.
“I learned a lot of basic skills on this job,” she recalls. “I learned good social skills, how to multi-task. I had to fry French fries, chill the A&W mugs and run around to the outside, serve people and try not to spill anything on them.”
As for the monkey and the motorcycle, Pierce explained that at the time she owned a spider monkey and drove a motorcycle. When she got to work she would chain the monkey to the motorcycle while she did a shift.
How did she spend all the money she raked in back then? Well, she didn’t say exactly, but we can confidently guess that some of it went to monkey chow.
Nothing but Net—in the grocery line
Steve Nettleton is the man who brought professional baseball to Chico and did it in first-class style. Besides owning the Chico Heat baseball club, Nettleton is also a major benefactor for the Boys & Girls Club, having bestowed a $500,000 endowment on the recreation center a few years back to get the organization up and running.
Before he owned the Heat, Nettleton made his fortune in the grocery business, having owned a chain of Food 4 Less stores.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Nettleton got his first job as a box boy at a Mayfair grocery store in San Diego at the age of 13. “I packed groceries, carried them out to the cars for the ladies and cleaned up in the store,” he says.
The year was 1954, and he had just moved to the San Diego area from Iowa with his family. He would stay with Mayfair for the next six years, moving up from box boy to apprentice clerk to journeyman clerk to night manager before leaving in 1960.
Eventually, he recalls, a larger chain gobbled up the store, so the name no longer exists.
Nettleton says more than anything he learned at this first job that you “never got anywhere by not working hard, being punctual and being friendly to fellow workers and customers. And I was fortunate in that I had some great managers to instill these things.”
Nettleton’s next career was in a similar but smaller field.
“I went from there to the Little Midget Market mini-mart,” He said. “It’s out of business now, too. I guess I was just the kiss of death for these businesses.”
Supe on wheels
Before he was the powerful, well-paid superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, Scott Brown hauled wood chips for a living.
“I was certainly one of those guys who had to work his way through college,” he said. While Brown was a beginning teacher in the mid-1970s, he found himself splitting his time between classes at Humboldt State University and his school job a couple of hours north on Highway 101 in Crescent City.
He’d drive the logging truck to school and after three hours of classes head back to his family in Crescent City. “It was drive the truck, dump the chips and go to class,” Brown remembered.
Even when he was hired to teach at $5,100 a year, he said, “I kept [the trucking job] for a while thinking if everything went south I could fall back on it.”
He liked the fact that it was something completely different from teaching, and it exposed him to a whole new group of people. “I remember how grueling the job was and how hard these guys work who drive these trucks 12 to 14 hours a day,” he said. “It’s about getting a job done. There’s very little discussion about achievement level or wood chips.”
Also while in college, Brown worked at the roller rink in Eureka. “We would skate and do the hokey pokey—all that kind of stuff. He also worked in a jewelry store and back in high school pumped gas.
Brown said he’s let his truck driver’s license lapse and no longer does the hokey pokey. He does appreciate having learned a variety of skills, though. That’s what it’s all about—hey!
From hippie chick to business-woman
Laughing, Georgie Bellin remembers how she must have looked to her new boss in 1970.
She was 19 years old and had just been hired to be the assistant to the dean of Chico State University’s brand-new Graduate School—by student standards a pretty swanky job—and she turned up for work with her long hair in dual pony tails on the sides of her head, in jeans and cowboy boots.
Dr. Leonard Kent, her boss, promptly pulled her aside to give her a little advice. Her hippie girl persona, which fit in perfectly with her student peers, wouldn’t do in the faculty board meetings and office staff life she’d been hired to work in.
“I still remember what he said,” Bellin said. “It was, ‘You have to dress the part for people to take you seriously.’ … He really groomed me for the life I have now. He saw something in me that told him I would do a good job, and I was very lucky.”
The advice has stuck with her for more than 30 years. Bellin, who is now one of Chico’s busiest commercial-real-estate brokers and a former city mayor, said that she still remembers to dress the part of the successful businesswoman she is today.
“People have gotten pretty casual these days, but I think it’s really important for people to dress appropriately for their jobs,” she said. “When I sit down with clients, I want them to see that I’ve made an effort to present myself well, and that matters.”
She remembers Dr. Kent as one of the most important mentors she’s had. Back then, she was used to trying to fit in—and sticking out in her classes. She was the only female economics student in the department and laughed as she remembered that her mother thought she was studying home economics.