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Many Roles, Too Short a Life

July 21, 2002

A little bit of hope died with Benny Hernandez. Educator, politician, activist, speaker--it's hard to decide which label captured the man who died July 11 at age 45.

More than anything else, Hernandez defied expectations. His last 18 months flew in the face of doctors' predictions that he would survive no longer than 12 weeks after being diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumor.

Hernandez's optimism was evident in an unlikely run for the Anaheim high school district board. He spent all of $8.13 on the campaign, yet unseated the incumbent. The victory allowed us all to again believe that the little guy still has a chance in politics. Earlier, Hernandez had interrupted a career as a youth counselor to work on the congressional campaign of Loretta Sanchez--at a time when few believed she could defeat former Rep. Robert K. Dornan. And, late in his life, Hernandez began teaching sixth-graders.

Hernandez devoted much of his life to persuading little guys--and girls--that they could succeed. He led a program that brought inner-city kindergartners from uneducated families to college campuses, planting the seed that they too merited a college education. As a substitute teacher, Hernandez was not content to be a baby-sitter; instead, he urged his young charges to study hard and surprise the world.

He had barely begun his new life as a teacher and high school trustee when the tumor surfaced in January 2001. Hernandez responded by using his remaining days as an inspiration to whomever he could reach. He tweaked doctors by inserting joking references in his calendar to "systems shutdown" the day doctors thought he would die. He went past that day by nearly six months. He traveled to China, where he struck up conversations with shopkeepers, tourists and anyone who would listen. And, until his last days, he spoke and sang at schools and churches, always seeking out children.

"Whatever you do in life, do your best," Hernandez exhorted them and all of us. "Tell people how you feel about them. Learn as much as you can. Don't wait until tomorrow."

Hernandez could not overcome the ultimate reality of life, so the world lost him, too young and at a time when his brand of optimism and willingness to help are sorely needed. Left behind is the question of whether we'll embrace this humble and humorous man's beliefs. If we accept the challenge, Benny Hernandez will have made the world a far richer place.

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