Benny Hernandez, a Latino activist and Anaheim Union High School District trustee who inspired people in his defiant fight against a fast-growing cancerous brain tumor, died at home Thursday afternoon, surrounded by his family.
Doctors expected Hernandez to die 18 months ago, giving him six to 12 weeks to live after they discovered the tumor in January 2001. He refused to give up hope.
Hernandez, a sixth-grade teacher in Compton until his diagnosis, spent his time since then speaking at churches and schools, telling everyone he knew--even those he didn't--to live each day fully. He once said, "I want to spend my last days reaching out to other people. I think that's the greatest reward.... I will keep going until my last breath."
He did just that.
Last month, he helped district Supt. Jan Billings hand out diplomas to graduating seniors at Magnolia High School. He shook the students' hands; some leaned over and kissed him as he sat in his wheelchair. On the drive home, the 45-year-old told his brother, "This is the greatest night, and I am so excited."
"It was such a high for him," Billings said. "He was surrounded by these beautiful, young people. They were about to enter a phase of their life that was exciting, and he was a part of it.... It was the most wonderful gift."
It was the way Hernandez approached life, even before the tumor, that won him the respect and admiration of a large network of friends. He was known for his optimism, his cheerful demeanor and an ear-to-ear smile that rarely left his face. He spent only $8.13 on his successful run to unseat a school board incumbent.
He also was deeply spiritual and believed that God gave him the tumor to test his faith.
"It is a miracle that he lived so long," said Amin David, who heads Los Amigos of Orange County, a longtime Latino community activist group. "The best minds in the medical field only gave him months, and he lived more than a year. He's come to rest ... and we want to think he is sleeping now."
Maggie Hernandez said her brother's health declined rapidly in the last week. He quit eating and could no longer drink from a straw. He was able to speak as late as Thursday, uttering a few simple phrases, including one he said often: "OK, ready."
"He went peacefully," Maggie Hernandez said. "He did not anguish at all. Somewhere along the way from when he passed away to when they took him away, he developed a smile on his face. Even in death, he was able to get that last smile in there."
Hernandez is survived by his son, Alex, 8; his mother, Magdalena Hernandez; his sister; and his brothers, Henry and David Hernandez. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Times staff writer Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.