Cecil “Pancho” Padilla’s emotions hover so close to the surface that at times they engulf him. As he recalls his involvement in setting up a dental clinic in Mulege, Mexico, his voice wavers: “There was a polio-stricken girl we’d helped on an earlier visit, and on this visit we were able to find her a golf cart so she wouldn’t have to crawl through the dirt any longer.”
After a lengthy pause, he continues in a halting voice, barely audible. He talks about spotting the girl’s father standing alone, apart from a group gathered to celebrate the arrival of his daughter’s golf cart.
“I went over and asked him why he wasn’t part of the celebration. He said, ‘I’m so embarrassed. I’m ashamed. You provided my daughter what I can’t provide.’” Padilla wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, breathes deeply, and composes himself before finishing the story.
If you spend any time with Pancho Padilla, you discover that this instantaneous flood of feeling is not unusual. During his Rotary work in the field, which has taken him to more than 70 countries, he keeps his emotions in check and contributes his skills as a self-taught mechanic who can fix just about anything. But once he’s back home, with time to reflect, the memories can reemerge without warning.
Now 72 and living in Davis, near Sacramento, California, in the U.S., Padilla has been retired from Pacific Gas and Electric for two decades. For him, “retired” means buying and restoring vintage cars, cross-country motorcycling, drag racing, and volunteering through Rotary and Habitat for Humanity. He’s also transformed his living room and hallways into Rotary shrines. Among his Rotary medals, ribbons, and plaques is a world map pinpointing all his Rotary trips.
But Padilla’s passion for Rotary goes beyond his collection of memorabilia. After years of donating to The Rotary Foundation, he reached $250,000 in contributions in 2011, and he was inducted into the Arch C. Klumph Society the following year. At the ceremony, he reminisced about the time his boss at Pacific Gas and Electric asked him to join the Rotary Club of Placerville. “I had no idea that what started out as a company requirement would ultimately become a passion and a lifetime of service.” Today, he is a member of the Rotary Club of Winters.
As the son of Mexican-American parents who owned a small farm in rural West Sacramento, the young Padilla mucked out the pigs’ trough and repaired broken equipment while his mother and father worked day jobs in town to support their family. “I never knew I was poor until I went to school and the other kids laughed at the patches on my clothes. My brothers and sister and I grew up happy anyway.”
That hardscrabble upbringing toughened Padilla’s hands but not his heart. On the trip to Mulege, he instinctively identified with the wounded pride of the polio victim’s father, and just as easily with the victim herself. “As I’ve moved about to so many countries, there’s always a hook that gets me. A parent or a child just hugs me and squeezes me, and they don’t want to let me go because I’ve been able to help. That’s what keeps me going back.”
For a man so deeply involved with Rotary – he estimates that he owns and wears 97 shirts with the Rotary emblem – Padilla’s early connection to the organization was inauspicious. He spent his first four years attending lunch meetings at the Placerville club and meeting for drinks with club members after work, nothing more. But at a district conference in the late ʼ70s, he met a dentist, Don Ratley, who wanted to establish a dental clinic in Mulege. “I spoke Spanish, so he approached me to join him and translate,” Padilla remembers.
Expanding his skill set
On that monthlong tour in 1979, Ratley taught Padilla how to be a dental assistant – a skill that would later serve him on missions to Africa and beyond. He and Ratley set up a basic clinic and mostly pulled bad teeth, Padilla says. There was a simple reason: They had no equipment for filling cavities. Today, the clinic receives support from many Rotary clubs and occupies a stand-alone building, outfitted with three dental chairs, X-ray machines, and denture-making gear. Among other handyman tasks, Padilla installed its ceiling fans. No local resident has to pay for any services there. “We’ve come a long way,” he says.
These days, when he’s not on a Rotary mission, you’re most likely to find Padilla acting as a volunteer wingman for Laura Day, governor of District 5160. Her 300-mile-long district includes 71 clubs and Padilla has agreed to drive her to visit all of them. “After so much time in the car together, I know him well,” Day says. “I know he’s slept on dirt floors in El Salvador, and probably didn’t change his clothes for a week in order to dig out a road or build a bridge. He’s done polio immunizations, medical clinics in the Philippines, dental assistance in Mexico, Nepal, and Africa – whatever was needed.”
On the near horizon is another monthlong dental clinic trip to Mulege with two teams that he’s organized, along with a mission to Haiti to help in a recovery project and a trip to Chile. For Padilla, the gratification that comes from service is intense and ever-present.
“Maybe I don’t have the words for what I feel, but there’s never any doubt that I’m going to get something from every project I go on. It could be as simple as a warm tortilla from a child, something that grabs the strings of my heart. I’ve asked myself many times, where would my life be without these experiences?”
This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Rotarian.