Former Corona High tennis coach and photography teacher José Nino had no plans for retirement as he neared 50 years of work at the school. That’s logical since his life is an unplanned success story.
An emigrant from Mexico, he was caught in Texas at age 9 and deported as a child only to return a week later. He picked cotton. At age 11, he rode with his family in a 1951 Ford driven by his oldest brother without a license to California.
“We were stopped by the highway patrol twice,” Nino recalled. “They just shook their heads and let us go.”
His family found its way to Orange County, where he discovered tennis and photography at Santa Ana Valley High. He became a U.S. citizen at 18.
Nino, 73, went to Cal State Fullerton, earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese and a teaching credential. He saw his future wife, Cheri, sitting under a tree 51 years ago. He told a friend he was going to marry her. They wed on April 16, 1969. In 1970, he started his work at Corona High that was seemingly never ending.
That work included guiding the Corona girls’ tennis team to a Southern Section title in 1989, the first CIF crown in any sport at the school. Nino coached Rob Grant against Palos Verdes sophomore Pete Sampras in the CIF Southern Section quarterfinals on May 29, 1987. Nino told Grant to hit the ball to the weaker side of the future 14-time Grand Slam tournament winner. It worked a little bit. Sampras prevailed 6-3, 6-3.
Nino’s career started to end on Valentine’s Day 2017 just as he was talking about the future of Corona tennis with Principal Antonio Gonzalez. At the same time, his wife, Cheri, needed new level of commitment from him.
During the meeting, Nino received a call from his son, Chris, 37, who had found his mother collapsed in the garage of their Perris home. Her left side was paralyzed from a stroke in the right side of her brain. She was coherent and speaking shortly after the stroke.
She then lost consciousness and was transported to a hospital in Riverside. Doctors told José that his wife was going to die or be paralyzed for the rest of her life. She lived. Her left side is paralyzed.
José has devoted part or all of every day since to the care of his wife. That included the first three weeks after the stroke in intensive care and nearly two months at a rehabilitation facility in the city of Orange. She returned home on May 25, 2017.
“She gave me her undivided attention for 47 years,” José said. “Taking care of her is natural for me. Teaching and coaching is important but there is no comparison to taking care of my wife.”
Cheri Nino, 71, used to have José’s clothes ready for him when he arose between 4:30 and 5 a.m for work. Now he listens for her to awaken between 3 and 6 a.m. He makes sure she has water and balm for her dry lips. He suctions mucus from her esophagus. He changes her breathing tube 3-4 times a day.
“I am the physical therapist,” he said.
He gently massages Sharon’s joints.
“The goal is to keep all moving parts moving,” he said.
He helps her lift weights to strengthen the right side of her body. He feeds Cheri a 1,200-calorie a day diet that is low on sodium and high on protein shakes. Cheri returns to bed between 3 and 4 p.m. They watch television together.
“She loves science,” he said. “We watch the History Channel.”
Derek Nino, 46, the couple’s oldest son, said his father “is somewhat sleep deprived because he always has one eye open for her. He is so stoic. He is so task oriented that nothing phases him.”
Jose was a photography teacher who taught his students how to develop their film and print their black and white photos in the darkroom. He had to update his teaching credential by taking an online course on digital photograph a few years ago. He’s also taught Spanish, Mexican history and language arts.
He became the wedding photographer for future stars in the area, documenting the weddings. When Nino started coaching tennis, the courts were covered with asphalt with grass growing in the cracks. The rackets were wood. The concrete courts are now named in his honor.
Nino turned down the honor of being grand marshal of Corona’s Cinco de Mayo celebration this year because he couldn’t afford the time away from her.
José accumulated 450 unused sick days during his career. The school district found a substitute, allowing him to use those days while he cared for his wife before formally retiring last summer.
Last spring, Nino received a check for $1,973 after he was named a finalist for the Life Changer of the Year Award, an honor sponsored by the National Life Group Foundation. The award recognizes school teachers and employees from around the nation who positively influence the lives of students.
Corona-Norco Deputy Superintendent Samuel Buenrostro said, “The Life Changer Award is most appropriate as he made a difference for thousands of families in our community for five decades.”
Nino’s devotion to his wife doesn’t surprise Lyle Wilkerson, Corona’s former baseball coach and a colleague for decades.
“He’s one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever known as far as devoting himself to other people,” said Wilkerson.