RENO (Feb. 17) — It not often a child’s dreams come true. But for Teresa Aquila, that’s exactly what happened to her.
“When I was very, very young, I’m going to say 5- or 6-years old I wanted to play with tools and wanted to be a mechanic ever since I was a little kid,” she said. “In my first grade an officer actually came to the school and I thought, ‘that’s what I need to be.’ So I wanted to be two things, a cop and a mechanic.”
Teresa Aquila stands with a vintage car and with the symbol for her radio show.
Photo courtesy – Teresa’s Garage
It wasn’t easy as back then society had definite ideas about the careers open to girls and women.
“In my fourth grade school the teacher asked all the students to put down on a piece of paper what you wanted to be when you grew up then they would put it up on the wall for open house,” she said. “Mine said I wanted to be a cop and a mechanic and she pulled me aside after class and said, ‘you got to change this. She said girls don’t do this, this is not what girls can do.’”
Teresa Aquila stands with a vintage car and with the symbol for her radio show. Photo courtesy – Teresa’s Garage
After being threatened with an “F” she changed her goal to secretary. But at the open house Aquila stood by that sign and told everyone that wasn’t her dream.
“The teacher went to my mom and said that I was pretty defiant,” she said. “My mother said, ‘no she’s focused.’”
While growing up in Petaluma, California an art teacher found she wanted to go into mechanics. So he suggested a drafting class would be good since she would eventually have to be able to read schematics.
Unfortunately the drafting teacher was old school and rejected her application. So her art teacher went to the principle, got the decision reversed but in the class she wasn’t treated very well.
“At the end of the class I was probably about a B or B+ student and when I got my final grade it was a D-,” she said.
Faced with this and knowing the teacher wanted her to get angry, she chose a different response.
“I told him that I learned everything everyone else did. And I said that a grade is just an opinion and walked out of the class,” she said.
Later she started teaching herself mechanics.
“I got my first car when I was 18, it was a ’63 Chevy which I still own today and restored it years ago,” she said. “That was my everyday driver and I paid $300 for it.”
She needed to paint the car and a friend of her stepfather’s, who was a professional painter, taught her how to paint the car.
“He was a great Samoan, very knowledgeable in mechanics and he sat me down and said, ‘you’re doing everything, I’m just going to stand by and you’re actually going to turn those nuts and bolts,’” she said.
Even today Teresa Aquila works on cars like this one at her business, Teresa’s Garage.
Photo courtesy – Teresa’s Garage.
At that time mechanics was a male dominated field and women weren’t really welcome. Still undeterred Aquila kept chasing her dreams.
After starting at Ralston Purina in the office she learned about an opening in their maintenance department. It was a struggle but she finally got accepted for the position.
“My first day on the job was comical in one respect but insulting in another because they actually had you build your own bottom toolbox,” she said.
Knowing how to weld she used the materials they gave her and built the box, built the top box, bought all new tools and her co-workers painted the bottom box white with pink polka dots and a bow on it.
“So I actually pushed that cart around Ralston-Purina for weeks until they got so upset,” she said. “It was also a learning process.”
Aquila explained that she wasn’t trying to blaze a trail for women but just work in the field she wanted to be in. And in 1977, same year she went to work for Ralston Purina, she joined the Sheriff’s Department as a reserve deputy where she still serves.
And that led her to other opportunities.
“One of the captains came to me and said, ‘you know Teresa you’re really good at mechanics’ as I was working on his car on the side,” she said. “And he said why don’t you go get a business license and we’ll see if the county commissioners will hire you as an outside vendor. I went, ‘wow,’ I’m game for that so I got a business license and that’s when Teresa’s Garage started in 1977.”
For the next two or three years she worked as an outside vendor maintaining patrol cars. And she switched day jobs and hired on as a technician with Porsche Cars of North America.
Eventually the Sheriff’s Office created a maintenance section and she took the test to qualify.
“There were 400 people applying for this one position,” she said.
Unfortunately she scored seventh in the four and a half hour test so wasn’t offered the job.
That was the same time where she got a new boss at Porsche, who felt that women had no place there as technicians. After getting written up for almost anything plus the stress and getting injured on the job she left about a year and a half later.
Looking back at that time she said, ““The worst of it in my career has been the negativity in my younger years trying to get to where I am today and having to focus because I am a woman. There were some days that throwing in the towel seemed so much better than having to go back he next day and fight for my space in this industry. But then that’s the easy way out and I’m not one for giving up so it hasn’t been an easy road to travel but the end result has been awesome.”
Oddly enough things were better in law enforcement.
“You know the cop side was a lot easier and I think it was because of the mechanics side,” she said. “That’s because the guys and I could talk nuts and bolts as we’ll be in a patrol car, we’ll be talking cars, or they have a problem with their car or we see some cool cars on the road while we’re driving around. And too it would also come into play when we had to do an investigation so it kind of worked in my favor in several ways.”
Today the automotive field has changed and Aquila is glad for that. Now the technical schools like UTI and Wyotech accept women and many are going into the field.
She mentioned Cambria Robin, a guest on her radio show, who attended both Wyotech and NASCAR Institute where she graduated at the top of her class.
“It was easier for her to actually register, for me back then they wouldn’t even let you get near the door. So it’s so much easier today but still if you have a focus and something you want to be you need to go and do it,” she said. “And if you find it’s not for you, at least you tried.”
With the massive changes going on in the automotive field Aquila stressed the need for education and continuing education for anyone entering the field.
“The technology is changing day by day so like I was saying on my radio show, mechanics are doctors of the automobile,” she said. “So we’re always having to learn, always practicing.”
But she’s found there is a downside as new technicians are problem solvers and many don’t have a full grasp of the mechanics involved in a vehicle.
“I think those mechanics of the future are going to be limited in what they know,” she said. “We’re a dying breed, the mechanics of my era, because if you ask a new technician today how to set points in a classic vehicle they are going to look at you, scratch their head and go, ‘what the heck is a set of points?’”
This past November she found a new way to share her knowledge as well as that of others. And it all started when a friend, who participates in open mike sessions at America Matters media called her.
“She called up because Eddie Floy said they wanted to branch into other programs and one of them was automotive,” she said. “So I asked her what she had in mind and she said, ‘how would like to have your own radio show?’ So she put Eddie on the phone, we discussed it and he said, ‘come down and meet me on Tuesday.”
Well it started out very different than she thought.
Teresa Aquila offers some water to a recent guest, Brett Shore, manager of the Les Schwab store at 9500 South Virginia.
“I came down here on a Tuesday thinking I was going to have a sit down interview with just Eddie. When I got here he said, ‘sit down, put those headphones on, your show starts in five.’ So I flew by the seat of my pants for the first couple of shows, kicked out on my own,” she said.
While Teresa Aquila and guest Brett Shore from Les Swhwab discuss brakes and their upkeep, America Matters engineer Craig Moss keeps track of the time and makes sure commercial breaks are handled.
Aquila is indebted to the staff at America Matters and to Kelly Rush for their mentoring and guidance. Her live show is aired every Tuesday from 2 p.m. until 3 p.m. on KRNG 101.3 FM or 1060 A.M.
Banner for Teresa’s radio show on America Matters Media.