Retired Brandon High School teacher Mercedes Hernandez celebrated her 99th birthday on August 21. With nearly five decades teaching in the area, Hernandez has seen and made changes to the Brandon community.
“The Lord decided to make me [live long]. I wouldn’t have dreamed I would live this long,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said she has stayed busy in her 99 years by working and traveling. She began working at Brandon School before it became Brandon High School. With her chemistry background, she taught AP Chemistry to her high schoolers before retiring.
“She taught so many students,” former student and close family friend Kimberly Tyson said. “We figured it out statistically. She probably taught over 4,000 people in her lifetime.”
After a year of retirement, she went back to her love of teaching at Hillsborough Community College, where she worked for 10 years.
“She was always able to keep our attention on what we were trying to learn is the best way to put it,” Tyson said. “She wasn’t boring to listen to and sometimes she would interject a story about one of her travels.”
Hernandez was born in Key West, but her extended family is from Cuba. After finishing her education in the United States, she worked for three years as a chemist in Cuba. However, she decided her passion was teaching.
She maintained a close connection to her family and friends and Cuba and would visit before Fidel Castro took over. She was in Cuba for a vacation to see her family the day Castro took over and got on the last plane out of Cuba.
“She didn’t see her parents for like 10 years. It was a long time. She would sneak through Canada to fly down to Cuba to give them supplies because they didn’t have anything,” Tyson said.
She is also one of the only living founders of the Women’s League of Brandon and supports the Rotary Club. She played an instrumental role in starting the night school at Brandon High School and helped World War II veterans who were drafted during high school finish their education.
“She really just decided ‘I don’t really need to get married,’” Tyson said Hernandez told her after she was widowed. “’I don’t really want to have children. I have children. I teach them every day. These are my kids.’ It was her passion and her life to teach.”