(Photo courtesy of Jim Howes)
WATSONVILLE — When Bill Sunderland started teaching in 1970, he planned on doing it for only about two years. He said that was his way of giving back to his community.
After that, he planned on becoming a professional mechanic.
But somewhere along the way Sunderland realized he enjoyed the job too much to stop. He lived within a few blocks of the school, and walked to work most days.
Sunderland retired earlier this spring, after a career spanning nearly five decades teaching auto mechanics.
“I liked being around young people,” he said. “I really enjoy teaching. I’m going to miss it.”
Sunderland taught at Watsonville High until about six years ago, when he accepted a retirement package. He stayed on at the Santa Cruz County Regional Occupational Program, however.
Sunderland, 75, said he wanted to “slow down a bit” and spend time with his twin grandchildren, who turn 1 soon.
He will not leave education altogether. He will still serve as coordinator for Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s driver training program.
Sunderland’s career at Watsonville High was so long that he taught the children of many students, several of whom went on to successful careers as auto mechanics, he said.
This includes David Kadotani, who owns Kadotani Auto Repair and David Toriumi, who owns Toriumi Auto Repair.
“He was great,” Toriumi said. “He is a very special individual and the kids liked him.”
Toriumi said he has kept in touch with his former teacher, and that the two recently worked together on a complicated repair.
“He is a great teacher and a great individual and a real role model,” Toriumi said.
“And he’s still energetic,” he added. “When I get to that age that is what I want to look like.”
Sunderland began his career at a time when engines were relatively simple machines and problems could be quickly diagnosed and corrected.
That changed drastically as automobile manufacturers shifted to systems that are largely controlled by computers. Still, Sunderland said he enjoyed adapting to the evolving technology.
At the same time, Sunderland said he has seen a disconcerting shift by school administrations away from occupational programs such as auto shop as they tried to focus on college preparation.
He said he watched as Soquel and Aptos high schools closed their own shops.
That is a problem in a rebounding economy that needs increasing numbers of skilled workers, Sunderland said.
“It’s important not just in automotive,” he said. “It’s all the trades. The economy is going well but industries can’t get the people they need. We’ve focused on the academics at the expense of the trades.”
Sunderland graduated from Del Norte High School in 1962 and received an associate’s degree in automotive technology from Santa Rosa Community College.
He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Industrial Arts from Humboldt State University.
He then earned a social science degree and a teaching credential from Chico State University, where he learned about the teaching position in Watsonville.
It was there he met Jim Howes, who now serves as assistant director of the county’s Regional Occupational Program.
“I always remember Bill’s support of students and involvement in extracurricular activities,” Howes said.
One of Sunderland’s tasks was to reopen the school’s auto shop, which was converted in the 1960s to classrooms to accommodate a growing student population.
According to Howes, Sunderland taught more than 6,000 young people during his career.
“I really enjoyed it,” Sunderland said. “Retiring is bittersweet.”