An assistant superintendent at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida, for the past three years and a 20-plus-year veteran of the golf business, the 59-year-old Romero has seen his share of adversity since crossing the Rio Grande from his native Mexico into Texas three decades ago.
He made that long journey toward the American dream with a pregnant wife and ever since the two have led a hardscrabble life that he looks back on today as a gift. They came from nothing and lived in the U.S. for months without their two children, who were left behind in Mexico until they became settled. They didn't speak English, and made a living in those early days - barely - milking cows and picking fruit across Florida, and in the meantime raising four children in a new land while trying to teach them the importance of hard work and traditional values that would help them find an easier life than that of their parents. His life story is the stuff of a Hollywood script.
"There is a lot of stuff that happened in our lives that is like 'wow, that's incredible,' " Romero said in a thick Mexican accent. "I don't regret any of it. I'm real happy."
Jesus Romero has gone from milking cows and picking oranges to assistant superintendent at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Photos by John Reitman That sense of satisfaction comes from knowing he and wife Estella have tried to do everything the right way - from becoming U.S. citizens 18 years ago to showing their four children that nothing in life comes without a price.
"We make a plan. Our goal was to help our kids to help themselves so they would have enough money, enough studies, enough resources to take care of their families. We've raised four kids who are good kids and are able to take care of their families. I can die today. I'm very satisfied."
That satisfaction also is a product of trying to live a humble and virtuous life not only at home, but at work since then-assistant superintendent John Cunningham hired him onto superintendent Dave Oliver's crew at Martin Downs in Palm City, Florida more than 20 years ago.
In those days, Martin Downs was the first western outpost along State Road 714 before arriving in Stuart from farming communities like Okeechobee and Indiantown.
"He stopped in looking for work. He didn't know what a golf course was. He just wanted to work," said Cunningham, who still counts Romero as a close friend today. "I took him around on his first day. He said he'd never seen such a beautiful park. He had no reference of what a golf course was."
Romero picked up the work quickly, earned a spray license and after working several years under Oliver, Dick Gray and Cunningham, the last for six years, was named head superintendent at Martin Downs for two years until the property was sold.
He rejoined Gray at PGA three years ago, when his position as crew coordinator for a restoration project at Sailfish Point was eliminated. In his three years at PGA he helped oversee the renovation of the Dye Course and is looked up to by just everyone who crosses his path, regardless of their first language.
"His story is the American dream," Gray said. "Born in Mexico; got his shirt wet getting here; picked fruit and vegetables; and we caught a break when we met him.
"We made him an assistant superintendent at Martin Downs, then after Johnny and I left, he became the superintendent. The place then sold and Jesus became expendable. I was lucky enough to draft him as the best available athlete even though I didn't have the immediate need. He worked himself back to the top again. He's a great coach and a great philosopher. He's the person that has put the Dye back together. He has a delivery, especially in making suggestions, that is just pure. I put in his evaluation, the portion that he doesn't see, that he has qualities as a person that I wish I had."
Romero's childhood in Mexico was no easier than the road he found before him in Florida. His father walked out on the family when he was a child. His wife shared a similar childhood experience.
"My father, he leave us when I was 10," he said. "My wife, she's been cooking for her family since she was 7. Her father left, too. We both are from broken families. We come from the same page. If we don't have it, we don't need it. We always believed that."
And they went without a lot.
Romero was working in an accounting office in Mexico City when a friend convinced him to emigrate to the United States.
"He said you can find money everywhere in the United States. Money was in the ground, you just had to come and get it," Romero said. "It's not true."
The journey itself into Texas was an ordeal, and one which he thought he might have to pay with his life. The couple had left two young children with family in Mexico until they could get situated in the U.S. Estella, pregnant with their third child, had a hard time at the border, where nar-do-wells had earned a reputation as predators, robbing, raping and killing those in search of a better life.
"It was real bad. My wife was pregnant, and that made it double hard," he said. "A bunch of times she fell. There are a bunch of gangs at the border, and the people leading us across, they tell us 'if you stay, they'll rape and kill your wife in front of you.' We fell behind. It was hard."
They made their way almost immediately to Okeechobee, Florida, where the promise of work was plentiful.
The couple worked long, hard hours, first milking cows, then picking fruit, all in hopes of creating a better life for their family, but all Estella could think about was her children, Ruben and Diana, back in Mexico.
"Our daughter was 1, and our son was 4 when we left them with (Estella's) mom. Three months later, my wife was not doing anything but crying," Romero said. "She wake up and cry, go to work and cry, come home and cry. She was ready to go back."
That's when a family they met in Florida helped bring their children to the U.S.
With two more children born in the U.S., no marketable skill and no grasp of English, life in the citrus groves was hard for Romero. When he needed to communicate with Americans and required the help of a translator, he was startled and disappointed at what he learned about his community.
"If I need someone to translate, it was 'OK, that's $5.' If I needed a ride, 'OK, that's $5,' " Romero said. "I worked hard to learn English. In three months, I was translating for other Spanish people. I was bad, but I was a translator, and I decided I'd never charge a penny for a translation or a ride. I didn't think it was right to take advantage of your own people. I don't work like that."
Jesus Romero, left, and superintendent Dick Gray check things out on the Dye Course at PGA Golf Club. Not all field supervisors in the ag business were trustworthy in those days, either, and Romero bounced around from one field to the next. With little money and so many mouths to feed, times were tough. When his car broke down, he walked four hours each way to work.
"We struggled for three years real bad. I was paid $140 a week. I had to pay rent, buy food and pay bills. At the end of the week, I had $1 left over. What do I do with it? Buy myself a piece of sweet bread, or a beer?"
Watching every penny was part of the plan he and Estella put into place, and they stuck to it.
"The bus taking us to pick oranges would stop at a store that sold coffee, soda, things like that. They sold hot dogs, and everybody on the bus grabbed a hot dog for 99 cents," he said. "We just had to look at it. I really was hungry, but we had to put our face down. We had no money. We never had a hot dog. It was eight years before I could go back to that same store and buy a hot dog. Now, I love hot dogs."
Their life became a simple model of "if we don't have it, we don't need it," he said.
"Our first house, we had no furniture for three years, only beds," he said. "We were happy. The kids had a place to stay. There was a time we had no house and had to hide in an abandoned trailer in a citrus grove in Vero Beach. I had to leave at 4 a.m. before the other workers showed up, and my wife had to keep four kids quiet during the day. I don't know how she did it. We lived there like that for eight months."
It wasn't until he started in the golf business that things began to look up.
He made more money at Martin Downs than in the fields, and made even more as a spray tech.
"He was always thinking there had to be something better," Cunningham said. "When he was milking cows, there had to be something better. When he was picking oranges, there had to be something better. Before he got his spray license, there had to be something better."
Golf helped him learn English, which opened a lot of doors. His kids all went on to college and are successful in their own careers with their own families. Two are in the military, one works for the Martin County Sheriff's Office in Florida and the fourth is a teacher.
"He and Estella are very traditional, and they raised great kids," Cunningham said. "It was lights out and in bed at 10 p.m. every night."
Romero prefers to deflect praise to those who've helped him along the way.
"I love to work on the golf course. I was fortunate to find people like John Cunningham, like Dick Gray," he said. "They see something in you and let you grow.
"I've been working in this business for 20-something years and my kids are grown and out of the house. The difference is that I was able to find honest, not greedy, people in my life. That's the key. In citrus, I had some real bad bosses, but I had to take because I had to work. When you have a boss who trusts you, it helps you grow. When you do something that's not right, but they tell you to keep going. Without guys like John Cunningham, like Dick Gray, my life would be a different story."
So would many others.
"We have a significant bond for sure," said Cunningham, now the general manager at Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia. "When you're a young superintendent, you need to get things done, and you need people you can rely on. He was that person for me. And I think he needed me, too. It was mutually beneficial. I learned as much from him as hopefully he did from me."
Their kids grew up together, and Cunningham's brother, Dan, a lieutenant with the Martin County Sheriff's Office, helped Romero's son, Ruben, get on the force.
When Cunningham interviewed for the GM position at Aronimink, he was asked to define his greatest accomplishment.
"I said it was Jesus Romero," Cunningham said. "From milking cows to where he is now - what a story. I can honestly say I'm a better person for knowing him."
- Read more...
- 1,860 views