Life in Mammoth has a lot in common with the reality television series, “Survivor.”
Maybe it’s the island living theme.
Or maybe it’s the scramble for limited jobs and resources. So few people manage to eke out a living and raise a family here on a long-term basis.
“If you can make it there … “
Sinatra could just as easily have been singing about Mammoth as he did about New York.
Today, we’ll celebrate a couple (though the interview was conducted with just one-half of the equation) that departs Mammoth on Monday after a successful 46-year run.
They leave with their marriage, their wits and their bank account intact. And a legacy of thrift and industriousness and fair play.
Rich McAteer grew up in Southern California. He graduated from Whittier College, studying history and political science, and then went into teaching.
He was living in Whittier post-college. And driving home one day, he thought to himself, so many never leave Whittier once they finish school there. They stay in the area the rest of their lives.
He wanted something different.
He knew a nurse who was going back to Massachusetts for a few months. He thought, well, if I try the east coast, at least I’ll know someone when I get there.
He applied for four jobs. Landed one in Westford, Mass. teaching English and Social Studies.
He met and began dating Jan Hanlon while he was there.
And then got drafted in 1966.
He was subsequently sent to Vietnam. Got lucky and was assigned to a Field Depot and didn’t see combat.
Got luckier still and asked Jan to marry him during his hitch while he was stationed outside Saigon. She said yes. They got married in Hawaii while he was on a seven-day leave.
And luckier still when he finished his tour and left Vietnam one month before the Tet Offensive would’ve placed him in harm’s way.
When he got home, Rich decided he wanted to get a Masters in School Counseling. “I thought I’d do the G.I. Bill and convince Jan to stay in California for a year.”
After finishing the program, he applied for jobs. But only on the west coast. “If I didn’t get one, we’d go back to New England.”
But once he landed that first job – it’s hard to stop that momentum. Five decades later, Jan McAteer can attest to that. “She’s been waiting fifty years to go home [to Maine],” says Rich.
Though it wasn’t as though Jan McAteer suffered. She may not have thought too much of the rest of California, but she loved Mammoth, and spent many rewarding years here teaching special education.
Back in the day, Rich made his living in a variety of ways. He taught driver’s education on the side. He bought and sold real estate.
His adaptability has served him well.
When he arrived in Mammoth in 1974 from Duarte, the local population was approximately 2,500. There were two schools. K-6 and 7-12. The upper school had about 300 students. There was a larger middle class. The community was less diverse.
The Mammoth Unified School District was created because Mammoth had to splinter off from the Mono County High School District, which balked at building a new high school in Mammoth.
McAteer not only served as a school counselor when he got here, but also created the school’s master schedule and was also tasked as the school disciplinarian.
Which taught him a key lesson about small-town life. “If you come here, you have to adjust your expectation of the rules, what they are, and if they’re enforceable.”
When Joe Maruca became principal, he tapped McAteer as his lieutenant.
He had become management. He ultimately served as Mammoth Unified School Superintendent from 1982-1991 and then as Mono County School Superintendent from 1994-2006. In between, he started the continuation school with Betty Kittle.
“Jan says I went to the dark side being part of administration,” laughs Rich. “When I was in Duarte, I was a union negotiator at one point, so … I’ve sat on both sides.”
His general observation about negotiating: “It takes both sides to recognize the other’s need. How do we make it work for both of us? Politics is too much for or against these days. There’s very little dialogue.”
He recalled one instance where he was in a negotiation with Rob Barker and Dave Smith from the teacher’s union and he made some sort of error, and Barker and Smith, rather than crucify McAteer publicly for it, simply notified him of the error so he could fix it before it could have blown up into an “issue.”
Part of the reason for the error, said McAteer, was because he had violated his own “three-day” rule.
“I have a three-day rule on decision-making,” he says. “I have just found that the times I made decisions that had to be in the moment [without having time to pause for reflection], I made more errors.”
In Mammoth, McAteer continued to invest in property. That was part of his retirement strategy. He sold the nine rental apartments he had acquired over time last year.
I had a couple of friends who rented McAteer’s units. They said he would always come to the door on the first of every month to collect the rent in person.
“I’d do that because … you need a basic relationship with your tenant, and that creates familiarity. It also gives you a chance to look around. Half of it is … it keeps a dialogue going if you talk about things that have nothing to do with business.”
His basic strategies: For purchase, McAteer used unit cost. He asked himself, “What’s a reasonable rent in the area?” And he wanted the cash flow to break close to even, figuring inflation and appreciation were going to do the trick [and make it profitable in the long run].
And for each purchase, he calculated a minimum ten-year time horizon.
There was s second Jan in Rich’s life. Jan Work. Namesake of the Jan Work Community School run out of the Office of Education.
Work was instrumental in helping make McAteer’s tenure at the Mono Office of Education successful because “she had all the skills I struggled with.” While Rich handled the budgeting side of things, Work’s forte was program development. “She always had an idea of where we were and where we wanted to be … and she wanted to do things that had a real impact on kids.”
And in terms of brick-and-mortar achievements, give a small nod to McAteer every time you visit the Mammoth Library. It was perhaps his signature achievement in terms of bringing partners together to make the project happen, and it’s been far more popular than McAteer ever imagined. “It’s used a lot more than I had anticipated,” he said.
“And we did get $100,000 out of Rusty [Gregory] for the library,” remarked McAteer drolly.
This led to a brief discussion about the changes McAteer’s seen locally over the past half-century.
He believes there’s less of a commitment to the town from the ski area than there used to be. That Dave McCoy was far more concerned about the school district, the hospital district, the infrastructure components that make a successful resort community.
“The greatest change has been the [ski area’s acquisition by Alterra Resorts and] move to Denver. There’s no longer the same history, the same culture. I’m disappointed that Rusty says he has a soft spot for Mammoth, but the soft spot hasn’t translated [into significant investment].”
Rich and Jan raised two boys here. One, Todd, lives in San Clemente. He serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources for the Oceanside Unified School District.
Sheet: So does Jan think Todd’s gone to the dark side, being a part of administration
Rich (laughing): No way. That’s different. That’s her son.
Son Timothy is a doctor (married to a doctor) and lives in Portland, Maine.
The four grandchildren range in age from 6 to 17.
Jan and Rich will live in Naples, Maine.
Addendum: Wife Jan believes her husband downplayed his accomplishments in this story and wished to elaborate on one point.
“He was responsible for building the elementary school (phase one and two), the addition to the high school, the County Administrative officers well as the library. All on budget and on time.” -Jan McAteer