After Ernest Garcia left Garden City in 1965, he joined the Marine Corps, served during the Vietnam era and in the Gulf and Iraq wars, acted as U.S. sergeant-at-arms and escorted former President Ronald Reagan to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address.

But before that, he lived in the house his father and uncle built on Santa Fe Street on the south end of Garden City within two blocks of his dozens of cousins. He’s never stopped calling the town home.

On Saturday, Ernest, or Ernie as he is known, and his cousin, Dennis Raphael Garcia, will return home to present, sell and sign “Marine, Public Servant, Kansan: The Life of Ernest Garcia,” Ernie’s biography penned by Dennis. The come-and-go reception will run from 2 to 4:30 p.m., with a short presentation at 2 p.m., in the meeting room at the Finney County Historical Museum, accessible through the north entrance. The books will be on sale at the museum gift shop during and after the event.

“My view is that when we have someone here to do a book signing … that’s part of our educational function…” said Steve Quakenbush, executive director of the Finney County Historical Society. “I think that (residents) can take away a sense of pride that Mr. Garcia and so many other people from Garden City, Kansas, have had an impact on the nation and the world.”

Dennis, five years Ernie’s junior, said he had grown up alongside his cousin’s achievements. About four years ago, when telling the story of Ernie’s life to his nephew on a road trip, the would-be first-time author was struck with an unconventional idea.

“‘You know, his life is really an amazing story,’” he said then. “‘I should write a book about it.’”

Dennis’ book, published by the University Press of Kansas, covers not only the whole of Ernie’s life, but also the generations that came before him. It details the family’s experience moving from Mexico to El Paso, Texas, to Kansas, and of family members living through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, as well as stories of Ernie’s father fighting in World War II.

Ernie’s father died when he was young, and he and his siblings were largely raised by his mother. He would go on to become the first in his family to graduate college, form bonds with U.S. Sen. Bob Dole — who wrote a foreword for the biography — and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and serve as the interim head of the Selective Service System and superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol, Dennis said.

“He went from being a lowly draftee in the Vietnam era to being head of the entire Selective Service Department of the United States,” Dennis said. “I think that’s like from bottom to top, isn’t it?”

Ernie took his cousin to Washington, D.C., to retread avenues of his past. They visited where he stood while working at the U.S. Capitol and a Veterans Affairs hospital where he recovered from health issues.

As both Marine and civilian, Ernie led his life with a brand of surefire focus that sometimes made it difficult to live in the moment, he said. The tour and interviews with Dennis brought him face to face with missing memories and life events he didn’t believe he had until given photo evidence: walking through the streets of El Salvador during its civil war, speaking to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Spanish and Italian, and teaching President Reagan a phrase in Spanish.

“At the moment, I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on, what I was doing, what I was experiencing…” Ernie said. “It’s (been) just kind of lingering over my head for a long time, and now it’s coming into focus.”

Ernie and Dennis grew up a block away from each other in Garden City, and Dennis said Ernie was in many ways the big brother he never had. Ernie had “a real personality, the man that brings a lot of joy and laughter,” Dennis said, and he wanted to honor that in the book.

Ernie’s story is an “affirmation of the American Dream,” Dennis said, one of patriotism, overcoming challenges and finding success with hard work and honoring the opportunity made possible by those that came before, which in Ernie’s case was his parents and immigrant grandparents.

Regardless, it took Ernie a long time to agree to a biography — he didn’t want “a whole lot of hoopla.” The sentiment that convinced him was one of legacy — not for him, but for his family, friends, community and country.

That legacy has been evident in schools the Garcia cousins have visited in El Paso and Wichita to promote the book. Ernie remembers tiresome seminars where adults lectured he and his classmates about working hard or following rules. He hopes he and Dennis are able to make a deeper connection.

“Hopefully, we can articulate our stories in a way that they can see themselves in us,” Ernie said.

“Both Dennis and I are from Garden City, born and raised in Garden City. We lived on the other side of the tracks. We both had struggles…” he said. “Whether they’re Hispanic or African American or white, I hope that the young people will make that connection. ‘This guy isn’t from New York or Los Angeles. This guy’s from here. Wow, listen to what he’s saying. I like that, and I want to be that.’”

Ernie is proud of his achievements. He feels like he’s earned the right to feel as much. But the book is more to him than a document of what he’s done.

He has two grandchildren, he said, ages 5 and 7. The biography doesn’t stand out much to them now, but in 20 years, he hopes that will change.

With any luck, they will come across the signed copy Ernie gave them, fall into the details of his and his family’s story, and rediscover their grandfather.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.