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August 17, 2010 > Special Life Events: Larry Orozco

Special Life Events: Larry Orozco

By Simon Wong

Photo by Simon Wong

After 36 years with the City of Union City, Larry Orozco retired as Recreation Supervisor at the Ralph & Mary Ruggieri Senior Center on August 13, 2010. His career has been dedicated to the city's young-at-heart, viz. teens and seniors. Many of the teens have become successful, providing greater opportunities for their own children. As for the seniors, Orozco regards them affectionately as "older teenagers" who have earned the right to a hedonistic retirement.

Born on June 26, 1951 at Dr. Morgan Lee's Medical Clinic on the corner of Third and E Streets, 59-year old Orozco's birth certificate cites "Decoto, California" as his place of birth. Decoto and Alvarado were still districts, before Union City's incorporation in 1959. Many years later his mother worked as a nurse's assistant at the clinic. He recalls his mother waking up to answer the phone and leaving their home to attend to other expectant mothers. Dr. Lee, who passed away approximately five years ago, delivered many of his friends and relatives.

The Orozco family lived on Sixth Street when young Larry attended [before the city's incorporation] Decoto Elementary before transferring to Manuel White Elementary for the second half of the Second Grade.

Just before entering the Third Grade, the family moved to Fifteenth Street opposite Alvin Searles Elementary where Orozco studied for the next four years followed by two years at Barnard Junior High and graduation in 1969 from James Logan High School (JLHS) where he played baseball, football and track.

As an 11-year old, Orozco played baseball for Union City National Little League sponsored by the Union City Chamber of Commerce and coached and managed, respectively, by his father and cousin Raoul Orozco. Another of his cousins, John, also played for the team. In 1961/62, they won the championship and reached the Tournament of Champions.

Orozco recalls attending the first All-Star Game in the Bay Area at Candlestick Park with his father and uncles, sitting in center field to watch Micky Mantle, "Whitey" Ford and other legends play. During batting practice, George Altman hit a ball that Orozco's father retrieved. It was the first to be hit out of the park and the party obliged a photographer by posing for a group picture. After the game, the All-Stars autographed the ball before the visitors went for dinner at Fisherman's Wharf where they were delighted to see their picture, captioned "Gil Orozco and friends," in the newspaper. Sadly, Orozco and his three younger brothers, Gilbert, James and Jeff, played with the autographed ball and it suffered; the ink has faded and the names are barely visible but the ball is still in his possession.

Orozco also has fond memories of summer vacations at his maternal grandparents' ranches in Orland and in Mission San Jose with cows, pigs, ducks, chickens and other livestock and with his paternal grandparents on their farm in Ontario, southern California, with a vineyard, goats, rabbits, pigeons and surrounding dairies. There was no hot or cold running water and it was after graduation that he ended up growing a beard.

The Orozco family is close-knit. His brothers live in Union City with their own families and the next generation is beginning to make their own way in the world after passing through New Haven Unified School District. He is fiercely proud of his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews and their achievements.

At JLHS, he had built radios and TVs and, after graduation, secured a place at Chabot College to study Electronics and play football. That summer, he decided to become a studio cameraman after recalling a visit to Channel 5 with the high-school film-making class to watch the recording of a show called Pow! He and a friend, Nobuyuki Kawaguchi who now teaches at JLHS, visited TV stations for advice about broadcasting courses. By the time he enrolled at the College of San Mateo (CSM), fall classes were full so he signed-up for a technical course in TV-camera Repairs and Maintenance and continued with his summer job at Conklin Brothers, Oakland, before majoring in Telecommunications in winter 1969.

He recalls working alongside fellow-student Jon Miller, San Francisco Giants announcer who was recently inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Miller, who graduated from Hayward High School in 1969, studied radio broadcasting and his first baseball broadcasts were from CSM games covered by Orozco behind the camera or on audio.

Were it not for his outside interests and part-time jobs during his studies, generations of youngsters and seniors would not have benefitted from Orozco's guidance and care. He worked as a sports reporter, photographer and sports editor for Dick Folger's "Union City Leader" weekly newspaper. In 1971, he was assigned to cover a city-wide recreation tournament between the Decoto Youth Center, formerly the post office then a slot-card track, the Kennedy Center and the former Holly Center, which now houses the Union City Chamber of Commerce on Smith Street. The Decoto Youth Center's Recreation Leader Fred Garcia mentioned that the Leisure Services Department needed another part-time recreation leader. Orozco applied successfully for the job.

In 1973/4, he became a Youth Coordinator for the Union City office (now occupied by Centro de Servicios) of the Southern Alameda County Economic Opportunity Program and set up the Union City Youth Program through which young men and women gained paid work experience and citizens could "Hire a Youth" for gardening, baby sitting, house-work, moving home, car washing, etc. There was also an information and referrals service. Orozco's photography skills proved useful and a dark-room was built upstairs in the Quanza hut.

"We also had three Neighborhood Youth Corp students who repaired and built bicycles and sold them. That was the start of the Youth Program's bicycle-component, now at the Teen Workshop on Mission Boulevard," explained Orozco. "Off-site, a dozen youths made adobe bricks at a local construction company."

The Youth Coordinator position was only a three-month appointment funded by the County but the program's success had attracted City Manager William Zaner's attention and, consequently, a three-month seed grant from the city. The program prospered and eventually secured a one-year grant from Alameda County firmly establishing the city's Youth Program, which re-located to the old Mohawk Gas Station on Mission Boulevard, offering youth employment and training and program/job referrals, self-help projects, community projects and educational and recreational programs.

"Many youngsters touched my life and we have remained friends. Bicycle repairs led to a career in mechanics for some. Many are grateful for learning the responsibilities of working life. Some eventually started their own businesses. Some of the girls now work for the County, for the courts, for banks and other corporations... Others have lost touch but I often wonder what they're doing. Sadly, some strayed from the straight and narrow and are no longer with us but, throughout the years, the program sustained many during their formative years," Orozco recalls. "Today, bicycles, silk-screen printing and video/movie production are the mainstays of the program which has endured for 36 years."

Orozco used to visit car shows around the Bay Area and wondered if Union City, home to several car clubs, could host such an event. The first Low-Rider Happening was held at the Civic Center from 1979 to 1984 and was a state-wide attraction. The first annual Gladiola Festival replaced the car show in 1985.

After 10 years with the Youth Program, Orozco and Alison Buenaventura, a co-worker on the Youth Program, transferred to other Leisure Services Department facilities. Orozco went to the Kennedy Center before Leisure Services Director Valerie Crawford invited him to join the Senior Program at the Holly Center in 1987.

"I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about seniors from staff in neighboring cities. After meeting with Valerie, I thought 'Do you want me to start hating my job? Are you putting me out to pasture?' I shouldn't have had such reservations. I've enjoyed every moment and learned so much. It was almost like coming full circle. The teens have pool and ping-ping and so do the seniors," reflected Orozco.

He is grateful for his inclusion in the later stages of planning and development of the Ralph & Mary Ruggieri Senior Center, which was dedicated in November 1998, and the opportunity to give progress reports and show photographs of construction to Ralph Ruggieri who was in a retirement home and unable to visit the construction site on Alvarado-Niles Road. Orozco points to the determination and vision of Senior Commissioners Sebastian "Buster" Bellomo, Miles J. Price, Ralph Ruggieri, Julia Garcia, Frank Potje and Rosie Larsen for the excellent community facility that all Union City residents and visitors enjoy.

"We knew that once the Senior Center opened, it would be in demand. Sometimes, there's insufficient space for the different activities we offer. That's great. To think we used to operate from one room at the Holly Center? We now have a dining room, assembly hall, upstairs classrooms, arts, exercise and all the other programs open to anyone aged 50 or older. Without this community center, many have confided it would be difficult to manage in isolation without access to nutritious meals and mental stimulation.

"I've been blessed with a fine life. It's my turn to retire and start a new chapter. I must thank my family for their constant presence as a youngster, as I grew up and for the positive experiences they gave me. I'm eternally grateful to my parents, my brothers, relatives, friends and co-workers who, over the years, made my job easier and the programs shine," said Orozco emotionally. "The City of Union City gave me a wonderful experience and opportunity to serve the youth and seniors. The visit to the Decoto Youth Center and being hired on-the-spot after Leisure Services Director Bill May interviewed me were the start of a fulfilling career. It will be difficult to just stop, so I hope everyone will remain in touch."

For more information about Union City Leisure Services Department, visit www.UnionCity.org/Leisure/ucls.htm or call (510) 675-5265.

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