Mike Perez says he's living the American dream.
A political prisoner under Fidel Castro's reign in Cuba, Perez came to the U.S. alone and with little knowledge of English. But he blended into his new home and discovered a new love golf.
Perez now meets people of many backgrounds on the golf course, teaching the game to all ages no matter their economic or physical limitations.
It is his passion to share the game that earned the Lake Villa resident the distinction of being one of 11 named to the inaugural United States Teachers Federation Hall of Fame this year.
Perez was born in Havana, Cuba, and was in his 20s when he joined the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus. It was one of the first organizations that defied Fidel Castro's politicism and, at age 25, Perez was among those arrested for their defiance.
After a three-month imprisonment, he was forced to leave the country. So he came to the United States. Perez said he did not see his mother or sister for 35 years, and never again saw his father.
He attributes joining the Knights of Columbus and how he lives today to his parents.
"They told me, 'What you believe, you must fight for,'" he said.
Perez first lived in Miami and later moved to Chicago to live in a Catholic home. It was at a social event where he met Dianne, whom he married a year later and has been married to for 48 years.
He got a job with Zenith Electronics, where he worked for 36 years as operations manager. A group of Zenith employees invited Perez to a golf outing, where he won a set of golf clubs. Perez discovered he played well, so he joined the Northern Illinois Men's Amateur Golf Association to compete.
In 1995, Perez left Zenith. He considered retiring, but instead decided he wanted to teach. After attending school, he was hired by the Round Lake Area Park District to work at Renwood Golf Course. In addition to leading group and private lessons, he serves as assistant manager.
Perez said what he likes about golf is the sport attracts people with various ethnic, economic and physical backgrounds. And, as their teacher, he does not treat them any different.
"I like to teach someone who has never held a golf club in their life and make them successful," he said.
He is proudest of teaching golf to youth, as well as teaching clinics in English and Spanish at area schools, as well as to Girl and Boy Scouts. He said he has seen many students earn college scholarships, and he hopes to see more success stories in the community.
"If you can get kids on the golf course and off the streets, we should do everything we can to do that," he said. "It would prevent associations with the wrong people."
Brad Rouse, Perez's supervisor, said what makes Perez a successful teacher is he adapts his teaching for each student. And, in a community where some may not be able to afford to play golf often, he also makes each person feel they belong there.
"He knows some can't afford to be here. But these kids are here today, and he will get to know them and make them feel comfortable," Rouse said. "He has an appreciation for kids who are not as fortunate as others."
Perez earned his first teaching honor in 2006 when he was named one of the top 60 teachers by the World Teaching Federation. In 2008, he was named professional of the year by the United States Golf Teachers Federation. Then, earlier this year, Perez was notified he was chosen by the federation's 28,000 members to be inducted in its inaugural hall of fame.
"I had no idea it was coming," he said. "Being in the hall of fame, even if it's the dog hall of fame, that's a good thing."
At age 73, Perez continues to play, traveling to three tournaments a year. And he has no plans to retire from teaching. Perez appreciates the honors he has earned, but those are secondary. What he wants most is to get people to respect him.
"If all of this comes because people respect me and respect my character, that is more important than any award," he said.