Driving school legend finally applies the brakes

October 12, 2007 

It’s the final day of class before the doors shut for good at Ninnis Driving School, and Mel Ninnis is going out in style.

Dressed like a CEO and teaching like a preacher, Ninnis has his students on the edge of their seats.

For 40 minutes the aspiring drivers intently track him as he paces the room, wipes sweat from his brow and even sits next to a student.

The teenagers are so mesmerized, you’d think Ninnis must be talking about sex. However, today’s lesson is simply a reminder to check a vehicle’s history before you buy.

“You never want to miss class, because he can make anything interesting,” said James Jones, a 17-year-old Mount Tahoma High student sitting in the front row. “He makes your day.”

Precisely why Ninnis became a South Tacoma Way fixture once he opened his school at the intersection of South Tacoma Way and Steilacoom Boulevard in 1987. Well, maybe it’s two things: His fire-and-brimstone style and the fact that his $230 course is about half the price of the chain schools.

The school has been good to Ninnis and his family. It gave the 51-year-old Clover Park physical education and health teacher another outlet to pursue his passion – teaching kids. And it allowed him comforts – Acapulco vacations and a second home on Hood Canal – most people couldn’t afford on a teacher’s salary.

But some things are more important than a second income. Like family. Ninnis has always believed this and didn’t need the cruel reminder he got last year when his wife, Alice, nearly died.

He’d always planned to close the driving school shortly after he turned 50 so he could spend more time with Alice and do more fishing with his 80-year-old dad.

“I want to spend as much time with my dad as I can before my time with him is up,” Ninnis said.

“It’s been a good run, but it’s time to retire,” he said.

 • The day before her oldest son, Ryan, got married in August 2006, Alice came down with what she called the worst headache of her life. She decided to suffer through the pain until after the wedding.

“All I knew was that she wasn’t feeling well,” Ryan said.

Alice, now 48, was suffering much more than a headache. She had a brain aneurysm. When she finally went to the doctor the morning after the wedding, she was told she was lucky to be alive.

“That scared me,” Ninnis said.

After emergency surgery and 10 days in intensive care, Alice returned home with a renewed perspective on life for the Ninnis family.

“It opened our eyes,” Alice said. “It reminded us to be thankful for what we have.”

In the year that followed, they started talking about closing the driving school.

“Twenty years is long enough to have three jobs,” said Ninnis, who will continue teaching and coaching boys basketball at Clover Park.

 • For 20 years, he’s gone from the classroom to practice to the driving school, getting home about 9 p.m.

But somehow, he rarely got tired or overlooked his family.

“He was always super busy, but he definitely had time for us,” said Ryan, who is attending Central Washington University. “Family was always first.”

But with all that rushing around, certainly the man who has taught more than 240 driving classes got a few speeding tickets. Right?

Just one, Ninnis said. He was rushing home to watch a Sonics playoff game when he got nailed going 7 mph too fast. He paid the ticket without contesting it, Ninnis said. “You have to follow the rules and regulations of the highway transportation system.”

 • Ninnis calls his students “beautiful learners” and somehow avoids sounding cheesy in the process.

“I think the most powerful and important jobs in the world are parenting, teaching and coaching,” Ninnis said. “I think they are more important than doctors or dentists or engineers. I’ve been lucky enough to do all three.”

He takes each of these roles seriously.

Ninnis Driving School, located in a narrow office building, isn’t as high-tech as the chain schools. Ninnis still uses the same textbooks and overhead projector transparencies he used when he opened the school.

But he effortlessly transcends the bare-bones setup. And, in the process, he hopes he’s inspiring his “beautiful learners” to do more than just enough to get their license. He wants them to be safe.

“He gets the kids into it,” said Mike McCormick, who has instructed for Ninnis since 1992. “He’ll kick the projector, tell stories and tell it like it is.

“One of his catch phrases is telling the kids he’s there to make sure they don’t have crap for brains when they drive. The kids love him. One year a student left him a card and signed it ‘I promise not to have crap for brains.’”

Christina Ferguson of Parkland was one of Ninnis’ first students in 1986, when Ninnis taught Clover Park High’s driver education program.

“What I remember most was that the girls were gaga over him,” Ferguson said. “But I also remember he was very serious about making sure we learned to drive safely.”

So, when Ferguson needed to put her daughter Mary in a driving class this summer, she took her to Ninnis.

“My mom said he was a funny, energetic, cool teacher,” Mary said. “She was right.”

 • When Ninnis closed the driving school last month, he turned down offers to sell the business.

Instead, he packed up the books and materials in case one of his children – Ryan, 26, Kevin, 22, and Renee, 19 – want to restart the family company some day.

“I’ve thought about it, but Kevin has pondered it the most,” said Ryan, who plans to pursue a career in the ministry. “I think it would be cool.”

While Ninnis would be thrilled to see his children carry on his business, he’ll be plenty happy no matter what happens. He got exactly what he always wanted from the school.

“I experienced the American dream,” Ninnis said. “I took a risk, I worked hard and I was rewarded.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497

craig.hill@thenewstribune.com

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