Thursday, 02 May 2019 17:22

From Auto Body Tech to Teacher & Back Again: The Felix Cano Story

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Geronimo Medrano (left) won the SkillUSA National Championships in 2000 under the tutelage of Felix Cano. Geronimo Medrano (left) won the SkillUSA National Championships in 2000 under the tutelage of Felix Cano.


Some collision repair professionals are content with doing a good job and taking home a nice paycheck at the end of the week, while others want to give back to the industry in one way or another.


Felix Cano is a prime example of the latter, and his story is both inspirational and intriguing. Cano, 57, works at Quality Colors Collision in Dallas, TX, after trying retirement and finding he didn’t like it. However, his role as an instructor is the part of his journey that he is the most proud of.


Cano has always had a passion for collision repair, an industry he entered in 1980 after learning the trade from his father, Felix, Sr. His career path was re-directed two decades ago when he became an instructor and a mentor at H. Grady High School in Dallas, TX, his alma mater.


By working with his father, Cano learned the right way to do body work and loves passing the knowledge on to his students.


“He taught me the basics and how to work efficiently,” he said. “I would do 100 hours and he would do 120---I never beat him. He told me that when I swing a hammer 10 times, he swings it only once. Do it right the first time, every time, he told me. He taught me that if I could slow down, I would make more money, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning, and that’s when I really started to excel. My dad is now 80 years old and still working at Chuck Fairbanks Chevrolet Auto Collison, which is pretty amazing.”


In high school, Cano got involved in its collision repair program and competed in SkillsUSA for three years.


“I had a great teacher, Donald Williams, and he was the head of the department,” he said. “I loved that man because he taught me about how to fix cars, but he also taught me about life.”


Every year that Cano entered in the SkillsUSA competition, he improved his standing, but never got a shot at the national championship.


“I finished third in the district my sophomore year and got all the way to the state level my senior year. I was the first person from my school to make it that far, but I finished second with the silver medal and only first place got to go to nationals.”


The SkillsUSA Nationals are like the Super Bowl of high school collision repair, so Cano was focused on making it there and was obviously disappointed when he fell short.


“I wanted to make my teacher happy and proud, and I never forgot that feeling. When I took the teaching job years later, I told myself that I would do everything I could to get Mr. Williams that gold medal,” he said.


One day, the phone rang and he received some life-changing news.


"I wanted to teach the same way my father did, so I decided to take the job. But, I needed a teaching credential, so I spent the next six years at Texas A&M while I was teaching. Since I had 15 years of industry experience, I got grandfathered in and was able to teach while I was studying for the credential," he said.


Cano loved his new job as a teacher and embraced every aspect of the position.


"Going back to teach at my high school was like a gift from God," he said. "I began enjoying it so much that I quit my job at the shop and went full-time. I loved doing it, and returning to my alma mater made it even more special. I thought, ‘I can do this---I was born to teach!’"


When Cano taught his first class of 32 students, his enthusiasm created a problem for himself.


“I saw all these eyeballs on me, and I realized I had to talk for 40 minutes,” he said. “But I rushed through my presentation and thought, ‘I need to slow down.’ So I started with the basics and went from there."


As he learned the ins and outs of being a collision repair instructor, Cano had SkillsUSA in his rear view mirror the entire time. SkillsUSA is a national membership association serving high school, college and middle school students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including collision repair. It is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. SkillsUSA helps each student excel.


More than 340,000 students and advisors join SkillsUSA each year, organized into more than 19,000 local chapters and 52 state and territorial associations. In 2017--18, 19,500 teachers served as professional members and SkillsUSA advisors. Combining alumni membership, the total number reached annually is higher than 421,000. SkillsUSA has served more than 13.5 million members since its founding in 1965.


More than 600 business, industry and labor organizations actively support SkillsUSA at the national level through financial aid, in-kind contributions and involvement of their people in SkillsUSA activities. Many more work directly with state associations and local chapters. Commitment by industry to the annual national SkillsUSA Championships is valued at more than $36 million.


One of Cano’s first students was Hector Martinez, who won state the first year, but a technicality kept him from going to nationals. During his second year, Martinez finished second in state, just like Cano did.


In 2000, Cano finally found his collision star, a student named Geronimo Medrano, he said.


“I knew right away that this kid was special. He won the district competition and then took the gold at the state level. But, then he stopped coming to school,” he said.


In a state of shock, Cano went to Medrano’s house to find out why he wasn’t attending school.


“I found out that his family was going through some unfortunate situations, and his father was out of his life. That meant that Geronimo would need to quit school to financially help his family. I told his mother that her son was going to be representing the entire state of Texas at the nationals, and she started crying. I felt just terrible because here was this incredible student, but he wasn’t going to compete and he probably wasn’t going to graduate either,” Cano said.


Two weeks later, Cano entered his classroom and everyone was unusually quiet, he thought.


“I looked in the back row, and Geronimo was there!” he said. “I could not believe it, and I got tears in my eyes. It’s on now, I told him, so we started training and focusing on nationals. People told us he would not win, but I believed in the kid.”


In a large arena with a big crowd, Cano and his best student entered the ring ready to rock and roll.


“I told Geronimo, ‘Don’t worry about anything,’” he said. “He was so mature for his age and confident, but I know he was going up against the best in the country. When it was announced that Geronimo won first place, I almost had a heart attack. The crowd erupted—it was the first and only time someone from Texas had gone all the way to the top!”


With a national champion now on his resume, Cano received multiple job offers and subsequently landed a position as the director of Dallas CAN Academy and then later at Lincoln Technical College.


"I took a couple jobs where the money was good and then retired at age 50. It was like the TV show, ‘Green Acres’---I had a little farm, but it didn't work out well, so 18 months ago I went back to work at Quality Colors,” he said.


Now a SkillsUSA judge, Cano can look back and see that everything has come full circle, he said.


"Geronimo has his own business, Dallas Star PDR, and many of my other students are out there in the industry and doing very well,” he said. “I always focused on my students, and that's why I succeeded as an instructor. I'm proud to say that I am still the only person in Texas to win a SkillsUSA National championship---a record I'll hold until another Geronimo Medrano comes around."

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