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Driving school founder Juan Mendez, taught thousands, dead at 84

Juan Mendez knew how to say “Stop” in Spanish, English, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Italian.

Sometimes, he had to shout it.

Mr. Mendez, who founded Arco Driving School at Chicago and Damen, was a religious man who read the Bible and visited prisoners at the Cook County Jail because he thought it was the right thing to do.

But in teaching an estimated 10,000 students to drive during a 30-year career, there were occasions where his patience wore thin.

“A couple of times, he would take me on the road while teaching someone, and he’d tell them, ‘Stop. Stop! STOP!’ They’d barely be hitting the brake,” said his son, Daniel. “He’d turn around and look at me and mouth, ‘Oh, my God.’ ’’

Mr. Mendez, 84, who had diabetes and heart failure, died Sept. 15 at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn.

He grew up on a small farm in Rincon, Puerto Rico, and moved to the mainland United States in his teens, settling in Chicago, where he worked for a phone company and at food plants.

Juan Mendez grew up eating island specialties like arroz con gandules — rice and pigeon peas. But in Chicago, he fell in love with Jewish deli food, especially pastrami.

He loved driving. So he invested in some used cars and outfitted them with an extra set of brakes on the passenger side for a driving instructor. He started Arco in Ukrainian Village in 1971, when most of his customers were Ukrainian or Polish. Later, his clientele shifted to Mexican and Puerto Rican motorists.

“You’d see him down Damen, you’d see him down Division Street, down Montrose, the inner drive,” his son said.

“Eventually, he bought the building where the driving school was, so we lived on the second and third floor,” Daniel Mendez said. “Every morning, like clockwork, he would wake up at 5 in the morning, shower, shave and go down to the office and start working.”

He preached self-reliance, his son said. “He would always say something, ‘You have only two best friends in your life: your two feet, and they take you anywhere you want to go.’ ’’

When he brought students to get their licenses, “He would bring people at the secretary of state doughnuts and coffee every single day he was there,” Daniel Mendez said. “He thought of showing people appreciation.”

Mr. Mendez’s lessons provided freedom for his students. His new drivers could get where they wanted to go without asking for favors, or seek out jobs that didn’t have to be along a CTA line.

“He was a very likeable guy,” said Alejandro Vignettes, a director of Juarez driving school, 1151 W. 18th St. “Whenever customers went to him, they were so loyal to him,” sending other recent immigrants his way.

If people were hard up for money, Vignettes said, Mr. Mendez would tell them, “You know what? Let’s pay whatever you can afford.”

“People in their 80s, he helped them learn how to drive,” Daniel Mendez said.

Juan Mendez and Leticia, his wife of 34 years. Family photo

His business also brought him his wife of 34 years, Leticia. “She ended up going one day to get driving lessons,” their son said. “They hit it off and they went on a date, and that was it.

“He was a family man,” Daniel Mendez said. “He would take my sister and me to Kiddieland every weekend.

After the 9/11 attacks, business declined. There seemed to be fewer immigrants, and the new arrivals were trying to survive a slow economy, rather than spend on extras like driving lessons, according to Mr. Mendez’s son. So he retired.

Mr. Mendez is also survived by a daughter, Rebecca, and two grandchildren. His memorial service featured one of his favorite songs, “Ave Maria.” His family handed out white carnations because he brought his wife carnations every week.