After 30 years as groundskeeper, David Mejia knows every inch of the 560 landscaped acres on the UCI campus – knows it so well, he could find his way around it in the dark. Which he does, every day at 3:30 a.m. when he starts his morning run.

“I run five miles every day,” he says. “By 5:30 a.m. I’m checking my e-mail and by 6 I’m back on the grounds, walking the park.”

His daily walk around the inner ring is part of Mejia’s inspection routine. As superintendent of the grounds department, he oversees planting and maintenance of the landscape, including campus housing, parking areas and acres of lawns, shrubs and trees, and managing the 66 workers it takes to keep the campus looking its best.

“I started out pushing a lawnmower,” Mejia says. “I’d lost my job the day after I got married. My wife, Edna, who is a secretary in the School of Social Sciences, brought home an application, and I’ve been here ever since. Sometimes I miss the physical work – now it’s meeting, meetings, meetings.”

Still, he says, “I enjoy my work. I like talking to visitors, especially when they tell me the campus is looking great.”

He would like it even better if he could indulge his love of garden color, Mejia admits. But flowers, which are costly and labor-intensive, aren’t in the budget. So he plants a riot of color in his garden at home, instead. He’s received awards from the City of Santa Ana for his landscaping, and often notices tourists stopping to take photos. Mejia is successful with just about everything he plants except vegetables – “I have a brown thumb when it comes to vegetables,” he says. But he learned early on in life that money doesn’t grow on trees.

“My dad took our family of six boys and five girls to the Central Valley one summer,” Mejia recalls. “Dad said, ‘I’m going to show you where money comes from.’ We spent our vacation picking grapes and tomatoes.”

The lesson helped keep the Mejia family focused on school. His own children, Mejia points out, are the family’s first college graduates – daughter Michele is an alumna of Cal State Fullerton, where son David is a senior.

As an adult, Mejia found a milder method for passing on this and other important life lessons to kids in Santa Ana. First as a Saddleback High School baseball coach, and for the past 25 years as a Little League coach, Mejia has mentored youngsters in his city.

“I talk to them – I tell them to take advantage of school. A lot of them listen.”