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From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man’s Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

Many thanks to my husband Frank for taking the time to share with us how his love for Mexico began, the challenges of having been a career firefighter in Southern California, and how his dream of making the world better–one roof at a time–is coming to fruition via Sol Luz Power

By Frank O’Grady

I have been asked by my wife Katie to write a bit about my goals, my dreams, my aspirations and not just my willingness, but my desire to live well outside of the bounds of what is considered normal life in our country of origin—Los Estados Unidos.

How I came to be a retired firefighter in Mexico has its backstory and to tell it effectively, I need to return to the very beginning of this dream of mine.

It all began well before I met Katie, sometime in the early 90’s, when I started taking day trips to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada in Baja California, venturing off onto any little side road I could find within a few hours of the border.

I needed a belt for my work uniform and having never been further than Tijuana, I decided I would head down to Rosarito and have a look around.

20 minutes after crossing the border, I pulled into north Rosarito Beach and slowly drove the length of town–which at that time, took me all of about 10 minutes!

Rosarito was very quiet and I spent a lot of time chatting with locals and eating at different taco stands to practice my Spanish and to sample as many fish and carne asada tacos piled with fresh salsa, cilantro, onions, guacamole and a squeeze of lime as I could. 

From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man's Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

I wandered the beach, smelled the air, kept my eyes wide open to all of the color and contrasts and just enjoyed conversing with whomever I met. Ready to find the belt, I headed on foot towards the north end of town where I had seen a leather shop.

Love at First Sight

You just never know what is behind a door in this country which is quite metaphorical for life here.

From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man's Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

This was my first introduction to shopping in Mexico and as I stepped through the door, I realized it would be like no other shopping experience I’d had before! It wasn’t just one shop—it led to an entire market I would have never known was there from the outside!

There were dozens of stands with vendors selling everything from clothing to tools, food, alcohol, flowers and shoes. I was amazed! It was, truly, a very Mexican experience.

Near the front of the market a man had all sorts of belts on display–deer skin, horse skin, cow skin, sheep skin, snake skin, ostrich and who knows what other types. It was getting later in the afternoon and I was quite thirsty so I chatted briefly with the proprietor about his belt selection. He showed me the differences in softness and texture, the different types of dying and engraving.

It was a show and a personal shopping experience like I’d never had in my life! I didn’t know what to buy so I told him I was going to go have a beer and come back and decide which one to buy.

He said he too was thirsty and he just happened to have a six pack of Tecate beer in his little fridge. Go figure! He handed me a bottle and grabbed one for himself. Marvel of marvels, the bottom of the bottle was formed perfectly to twist the cap off of another bottle! 

We sat and chatted about belts, life, kids, women, sports, lifestyles north and south of the border, differences in culture, the sky, the sea…it didn’t really matter–we just talked and meandered our way through those six beers.

It was time for me to get across the border before it was too late, so I went ahead and purchased a few belts (for probably too much), but I think both of us were quite happy with the exchange. He made a bit more than if I had really bargained, we drank beer and, best of all, we conducted business in a way where the purchase of my new belts was practically an afterthought to what was truly important in life.

I walked out of that store, found a few more fish tacos and conversations on the way back to getting my truck, and I was profoundly struck with the realization that I had found a new love in my life. That very day, I fell deeply in love with Mexico and I knew without equivocation that I could happily spend my life living there, amongst her people…becoming one of her people.

I do believe in love at first sight and twice in my life I have been fortunate enough to be struck, but that’s another story.

From Firefighter to Solar Designer

I will jump forward a couple of decades and tell you about my foray into the world of solar energy.

From Firefighter to Solar Designer~A Reinvented Life in Mexico!

Near the end of my career as a professional Firefighter for the Lakeside Fire Protection District in East San Diego County, I was rapidly losing my capacity to deflect human misery without absorbing it. The forced overtime hours and subsequent time away from my family was detrimental to all of us. 

To say that I missed many important days in my family’s life would be an understatement. With as finite as time is, I set my sights on being able to retire as soon as I was eligible.

I believe in unions. Workers are the backbone of our world. Mine had the foresight while the economy was freighting along to negotiate and pay for the best retirement that CalPERS offered its safety employees, 3%@50. Sure, I could have worked another 7 years and increased my pension by 32%, but I also could have damaged my body worse than it already was, or, died on the job. My back could no longer ignore the physics of my work and my head was filled to the rim with tragedy.

It Was Time for A New Life While I Still Had Life and Vitality

After my retirement in 2012 and once in Mexico, I would be running on the beach in the humid air, smelling the ocean, absorbing all the greenery and just decompressing in our new hometown of San Pancho, Nayarit and I would tally all the deaths I was personally involved with over the course of my career–easily over 1500. After a period of time that level of involvement in life and death takes a toll.

I began to look at options to get myself into a new line of work that would augment our pension and stimulate me mentally. It was also about doing something right for the world and to be an example to my children. My sights were set internationally.

From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man’s Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

Having installed a small stand-alone photovoltaic system at our place in Baja, I was intrigued by the prospect of assembling systems that could generate electricity out of the sun. I found the whole application fascinating and I still do.

At the age of 47, three years before I was eligible to retire, I started taking Electrical Theory classes at San Diego City College. 

I studied at work between calls and drills to progress well at school and pave a path for the future. My co-workers often wondered why I didn’t promote more than I had and why I concentrated on something completely unrelated to the fire service.

A New World

We knew we would leave Southern California once I retired from firefighting. We were tired of the busyness of life in SoCal. It seemed as if one had to work non-stop to afford a life focused on consumerism and accumulation and a political climate of division and hate.

When I walk through a door it needs to be to a new world. I needed something completely free of the fire service–free of the stories, free of the capitulation to external labor pressures, free of the politics of it all…free of all of the tragedy and death.

When I walked away, I did it not just willingly, but wholeheartedly and eagerly–relieved and without any regret.

From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man's Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

We Wanted a Better Life for Ourselves and Our Children

In San Pancho, I surfed and practiced capoeira, wrote and exercised and lived life while we adjusted to a reality where we were not work dependent. We grew and learned and gained knowledge about our new country and we found we wanted to set new goals and direct our paths differently.

I kept my dreams alive, dreaming that I would get into the business of photovoltaic design and installation and that I would not only make money but also have the opportunity to travel with my family and use grant money to install solar systems on rural schoolhouses or community centers that had no access to electricity.

I kept following the trade and keeping my ear to the ground, having faith that it would all work out. 

From San Pancho to San Miguel de Allende

At a certain point, with our kids growing and needing different educational opportunities, we decided to move to the heart of Mexico. We felt, as new residents, that we had a responsibility to learn more about our adopted country and where else can you learn more but in the revolutionary seat?

This was another step off of a cliff in faith. We had never even been to San Miguel de Allende but we rented a vacation rental for a month, loaded up all our stuff and hit the pavement looking for a long-term house, a new school for our kids and a new life.

From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man's Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

I applied for a scholarship to Solar Energy International, and while  I really did not have much hope due to my retirement status, age and income, the only thing I knew for sure was that if I did not apply, I would never know.

I talked about my career as a firefighter, my time as a union officer, how I believed in serving other people while doing right in the world; opportunities for solar in Latin America and providing electricity where it is needed most, and being an example to my children while involving my family in projects throughout Latin America.

Apparently they found my application compelling because they contacted me and stated that they wanted to offer me not just one scholarship but two! I am still am honored and amazed!

After I finished my second online class, I traveled to Paonia, Colorado to take hands-on installation courses. This really rounded me out as a professional designer and installer and created important relationships within the industry for me. I founded my own business, SolPower Mexico, and am indeed proud to say that I have kept my commitment to improving the world, one roof at a time.  

I am A dreamer, I Dream Big

…of a life with adventure, independence, beauty, color, love and flavor.

And I dream of this life for the people I love, too.

It is a rich life here in Mexico. It is not a fairy tale nor is it all roses. We have been lumped up a few times down here but we got lumped up pretty bad in the USA a few times as well.

Life takes its shots wherever you are. 

To come here and live, to establish yourself in a new country far away from the border…well, you have to dream and you have to be willing to step off the edge of the cliff with faith in your soul.

My hope for our children is that they always remember:

*Dreams are important

*Having a highly malleable vision for your life is important

*Sticking with and supporting the dreams of your loved ones is important

*Living life with courage and faith is important

*If you let a dream die, make sure you replace it with another dream

Reinvention in Mexico

Living, parenting and reinventing in Mexico has been an active, daily choice, and a journey of 10 years that soon will see our children graduating high school and beginning their University lives. What lays ahead is an evolving path that we are faithful will continue to reveal itself while simultaneously staying present and grateful to our here and now. Life, one big adventure, isn’t it? 

Saludos,

Frank From Retired Firefighter to Solar Designer Extraordinaire~One Man's Journey of Reinvention in Mexico

Other articles by Frank:

Moving to Mexico with Children, A Father’s Perspective

 

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About the author: Together with my Retired Firefighter Husband and our now 18-year-old twins who were just 8 when we immigrated to Mexico in 2012, we have created a joyful life of design and freedom South of The Border. Welcome to Los O’Gradys in Mexico! Saludos, Katie 🇲🇽 ☘️

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Bryan Peters January 10, 2015, 10:09 pm

    Very well said Frank. I remember days sitting behind a station or with one foot on a tail board listening to these dream of yours. I also remember stories that brought tears to our eyes, you seem to be on the mend, I am too. I am blessed to read that dreams do come true, even ones of people we know. I wish you and your family the best of the best. Thank you for having the courage to go for it, and share that with us, it is contagious. Bryan

  • Frank January 10, 2015, 11:19 pm

    Hey Brother,
    You were there with and for me during some very dark times…..I can recall those moments in the bunk-room or on the A-deck up there on that hill in that tiny old Station 2 as if they are right now, tangible and we are talking face to face.
    We did, the both of us and our families, get lumped up pretty badly a few times in SoCal…. often it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other knowing deep inside my being that good things were there waiting. Not gonna lie…. I wondered, at times, how I was going to make it into the next day.
    Yeah, dreams do come true! I never have nor will I stop dreaming and my hope is for all of us to dream big and take that leap of faith….. I know you have done it and you are going to see the rewards of it if you aren’t already.
    Seems to me if you live without dreaming and moving towards those dreams you are already one foot in the grave.
    I look forward to hearing about how your live is evolving.
    Peace

  • Carol N January 10, 2015, 11:48 pm

    What an incredible blog post! I am so glad you like to write long stories… cus it is all so wonderful. I love that you persevered on thru dark times by putting one foot in front of the other. And I love that you kept focusing on your dream. I needed to read that today. I am so happy that you persevered and how wonderful that you got two scholarships and you are about to make your dreams come true. Great job! Blessings on you and your family!

  • Frank January 11, 2015, 9:02 am

    Carol,
    That is quite generous of you to say those things and we both appreciate them. I am firmly entrenched in the philosophy that, even if something seems unattainable, that if you start moving in the direction of that dream, something will avail itself to you….. maybe not what you originally envisioned but maybe something even better and more suited to you.
    Hope to say hello around town.
    Peace, Frank

  • Larry Sulky January 11, 2015, 9:15 am

    Wow, two great writers in one family! Whenever the logistics of our impending move to Mexico seem daunting, I know I can turn to this blog to be reminded of the wonders that we know await us.

    I was moved to comment on an earlier post by Katie, and now I am moved again. Frank, not only is your post extremely well written, it is extremely touching too. With your permission, I’ll be quoting you extensively as I explain our move to colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

    I wish the O’Gradys the greatest happiness and success.

    — larry

    • Katie O'Grady January 11, 2015, 10:01 pm

      Thank you so much Larry….Frank and I do make a pretty powerful team. 😉

      Perhaps our family’s paths will cross one day. What part of Mexico will you be relocating to?

      Best of luck with your upcoming move!

      Warmly,

      Katie 🙂

      • Larry Sulky January 12, 2015, 10:31 pm

        We’ll be in Chapala, but my sister-in-law-to-be and her husband are retired in downtown SMA, just a few hundred metres down the street from the big jardin / plaza, and we expect to visit them from time to time. If you find yourself at the English-language library during the big SMA Writer’s Conference next month you might run into her… she’s running the bookstore for it.

        • Frank January 13, 2015, 8:38 am

          We haven’t been to Chapala but people love it… so many places to see and experience.
          Fortunately, it’s going to take a lifetime! I really want to get into the Sierra Gorda… such variety.
          We will have to make a point of getting down to the Biblioteca Publica for that.
          Katie might be considered almost a regular in there and your sister in law and she have probably seen each other already.
          Give a shout when you are in town. It would be great to give a hello in person.
          Peace,
          Frank

  • Jerry Lee January 11, 2015, 9:32 am

    Great story Frank. Amazing the things you don’t know about a person eh. Takes a lot of guts to move a family to another country and do it successfully. I enjoyed your story and look forward to more on the coming days and years.

  • Frank January 11, 2015, 10:05 am

    Wow Larry,
    Thank you for the high compliment! Quote away…..I used to get quoted as a firefighter often by my co-workers….. but that might’ve been a bit different!
    There is only one, OK, well, two certainties in life, but the only one we truly control is how we get to the end gate.
    If we don’t live our dreams no one is going to do it for us.
    It takes a bit of courage and, at times a very thick skin.
    To me, life has to be an adventure…… we all define it how we will but this life is an opportunity and I feel a deep responsibility to not squander this amazing opportunity.
    See you on the south side of the line!
    Peace,
    Frank

  • Frank January 11, 2015, 10:21 am

    Ha, Jerry Lee….. you would know, right?
    You made the big move as a very young man and you did it your way. Your story is well worth hearing.
    Jajaja, I don’t think there were many things people didn’t know about me in the Fire Service….. clearly, as you know, I was a talker and my name couldn’t be more apropo.
    It’s funny, I loved being a professional firefighter. That being said, it did not define me…. it almost felt, even though I worked hard to get the job, that it was custom made for a man like myself…..like that profession was out there waiting for me to fall into it and then leave when I was ready to and it was done with me.
    And, there is no doubt, that Lakeside Fire Protection District had a very distinct personality to it.
    It was not a place for the meek to work.
    I have not looked back with regret at leaving when I did once. It is all about the now and what’s coming down the pike.
    I guess that is where faith in the universe and yourself comes in….. when you don’t know how it is all going to turn out but you persist knowing that, if you don’t, you are not living up to who you are and we all have a responsibility to live out our potentials.
    And, by virtue of us having worked a few decades together, you know that we have taken our chances and fallen hard more than once….. but, living meekly and complacently is not our nature.
    We have a responsibility to live up to our “red-headed-ness”!…… says one to the other…..
    As long as Katie wants me to “guest” I will. I truly enjoyed the writing and it is flattering to me that Katie thinks highly enough of my ability to offer this gift to me.
    Flattery can get you darn near anywhere, right?!

  • Mary January 11, 2015, 10:53 am

    Thank you for sharing your story Frank. It has truly been an incredible journey. Love you!

    • Frank January 11, 2015, 1:58 pm

      Thank you Mary,
      We are a diverse bunch, no?
      Love you, too.

  • Deb January 11, 2015, 12:42 pm

    Frank, Great blog! You know, the thing that always struck me about you is as laid back as you seemed, you always had goals and focus. You had your stuff together enough to make work what you have done, where many others would have failed. Your Dreams were never just verbal, pie in the sky, with no actions to back it up. You planned, were realistic, acted on it, and although some curves were thrown, you have succeeded. No easy feat in a country that can be pretty scary and equally as beautiful at the same time! Although I do not have the extent of scarring you do from the Fire Service, I hope time and your successful new life will abate it for you. Retirement ROCKS!!

    • Frank January 11, 2015, 2:02 pm

      Thank you Deb,
      That is really generous and thoughtful of you to say…. we have all had quite the evolution on the back side of the fire service.
      It is nice to know that some people saw the “real” me, for whatever that is worth. I felt like I was from another dimension at times!
      The fire service was great and then it was great to leave….. zero regrets starting anew.
      Yeah, retirement….. it is THE BEST!

  • Terry Van Orshoven January 12, 2015, 2:20 pm

    Totally blown away by your words being you! Maybe different, but I am sure that leaving the ministry, which had many facets that were extremely fulfilling and meaningful, is a bit akin to you moving to new, powerful stage in you and your families life. This piece could not be more inspiring or uplifting. Maybe in some ways, the move/change have scraped away some of the owies and pain
    towards the end of your firefighting world, and the “scraping” has allowed the deep spirituality that you are, room to grow again. When folks ask me, “how are you guys doing”, I always answer, absolutely flourishing, with the normal challenges of being fully alive and aware.
    With great admiration for all four of you,
    terry

  • Frank January 13, 2015, 8:44 am

    Thank you Terry,
    Those are kind words.
    The recognition that my ability to deflect trauma in the fire service evident to me as it started to occur. I knew that I had a limited horizon and I made plans. I had seen others in the twilights of their fire service careers have significant issues dealing with traumas and tragedies that they would have shrugged off earlier in their careers.
    I did not want to be one of those guys that continued to take emotional punches past my point of dealing effectively with them.

    That being said, I have long term vision with the knowledge that the details and experiences that occur between the inception of the dream and the actual getting there may be much different than I had imagined but that is the beauty of being alive…. the experience and journey.

    Cognitive thought is king……

    Saludos y paz and enjoy the ocean views!

  • Ulises January 17, 2015, 11:18 am

    So inspiring…I’m truly envious!

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