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Outstanding Personality: Manuel T. Padilla

Manuel T. Padilla symbolizes the battles and sacrifices our country confronted during its depression; the transformations and triumphs he witnessed throughout his impeccable political life as a professional and community advocate during his long trajectory of constant and enriching service which he continues to provide.

Manuel T. Padilla was born in a small but prosperous town in New Mexico, named for a legendary Apache chief by the name of Cuchillo. Perhaps because of the particular place where he was born, Manuel T. Padilla has the mettle of an Apache, and is already a legend among those who know him. He stores a wealth of knowledge, fruit of his prolific life among statesmen of the country and the world, making him more cautious and intuitive. When Manny offers his point of view, everyone listens, with a gentle voice he delivers sharp messages. He continues to guide children as well as leaders. All listen to Manny, the friendliest and most cordial being of all.

Padilla has served on several boards of directors, nine years on the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Orange County and continues to offer his services to many community organizations as a tireless volunteer. Among his many recognitions during his impeccable political and professional trajectory, February of 2010 he received the Volunteer of the Year Award from the University of Georgetown, and this year, the Lifetime Award from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“Manny Padilla entered Georgetown University to learn and he graduated to serve. As a local Club board member, he works tirelessly at our community service and social events; and he always does it with a smile. Whenever possible, he inspires, coaches, and mentors our diverse population of students and alumni. In 2009, he was awarded the Alumni Association’s Volunteer of the Year Award (one of the university’s most prestigious honors), and it was my pleasure to nominate him. He truly embodies so many aspects of the Jesuit principles and traditions; most importantly the service one.”

-Debbie Marie Zaslav, Member, Georgetown University Board of Governors and Co-President, Georgetown Club of Orange County

His father Abel was born in Sierra County, New Mexico, where his grandfather resided when he arrived from Spain. His mother Constancia, also born in that county, is the second generation of the family. The couple was married and formed a very solid family who educated their three sons with total dedication- Manny the first, Abel the second and Theresa, the youngest.

Manny grew up proud of whom he was and he had a good time with his siblings and many friends from the neighborhood of Hot Springs, New Mexico, where the family moved when Manny started school. He visited his grandmother often, she lived in Cuchillo, a town very close to Hot Springs, place where the family used to live. She had become a widow and he spent a lot of time accompanying her, until he started school. Manny was her first grandchild.

“I visited Cuchillo a few years ago and found only a pile of dirt where our house was, it was adobe and did not last long, and especially the roof, the rains and winds reduced it to what I found. Only the fig tree beside the house remained intact and healthy in spite of the punishment of time and abandon,” says Manny nostalgically. “During the depression, many of those I call Texans and Okees, and some from Kansas, moved to New Mexico because they saw great opportunities there, and they relocated to the farm town where we lived. Cuchillo was very prosperous; it had many springs which the farmers used to irrigate the land,” says Manny.

Cuchillo flourished in 1930 as a commercial center and place of passage among the chlorine mines of Winston and the Engle railroad. The town started to disappear when the mines were closed. Today few buildings remain, the San Jose Church still serves mass and was reconstructed many times; a dance hall and the remains of mule and horse stables used to transport their merchandise, lie abandoned.

As a child, Manny liked to visit the neighboring town called Geronimo, name for the Apache chief who discovered the thermal mineral springs where indians used to cure their ills. Today it is a very attractive place; it has luxurious accommodations for visitors.

Manny studied primary school at Hot Springs and he graduated there from high school.

“When I started first grade my family moved to Hot Springs, but the rest of the family stayed in Cuchillo where there was more work. I didn’t speak a word of English, not one word, and there was only one teacher who spoke Spanish and she taught high school so she was far from those of us who couldn’t speak English. It was intimidating. I had to learn quickly or stay in the same class for another year,” says Manny.

At the time his father had built an adobe house for the family, “It had a kitchen and living room which was also a bedroom; later he added a room, so we then had a complete house!” says Manny tenderly.

Manny learned English quickly and started having Anglo friends; the others resented him because they said he was too friendly with them. Manny, being Latin American, had access to many places his Mexican-American friends did not, discrimination was evident. Manny has always tried to better himself; his parents supported him and said their children would have an education, in spite of the fact that his father did not have a permanent job until the 40’s. Life was not easy in the Southwest.

“The Hot Spring High School was very small, there were 52 students in the upper grades and only 12 were Hispanic. Hot Springs was an American community; it had a population of 3500; it was big for the time but never grew much. The areas of greatest growth and greatest number of Latinos were South in Las Cruces; North, Socorro and East, Alamogordo, Carlsbad and Northeast Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Vegas. “The person responsible for the growth of New Mexico was Senator Dennis Chavez,” says Manny.

Manny was going to middle school; he was 17 when the principal chose two of the best students to participate in the program Boys State, created by the American Legion, after World War II. Manny was one of them. The best students from all schools in California were 350, and were enrolled for a week at the university in order to learn civics. After that week they chose the two best, and they become Boys Nation, representing their state. They went to Washington D.C. for ten days to finish a more intense training in civics. Padilla had demonstrated leadership qualities from an early age. A student from Albuquerque and Padilla were chosen.

In Washington D.C. they learned the workings of the Federal Government of the United States. They participated in a fictitious senate and fictitious elections where they elected the president, vice-president and secretary of the Senate.

The elected students of the Senate attended conferences and real forums; they visited government institutions and historical sites. The played the role of a real senator, representing the Boys of their State. They wrote and presented projects of law and debates in the Senate Chamber. The delegates divided themselves into political parties and took part in a party platform; they accomplished day-to-day festivities such as the presidential and vice presidential candidacy, under the direction of the elected party. It is a tradition that the Student Senators have a private viewing of the Supreme Court, Congress, the Department of State, and the White House, and share a reception with the present President. Those who participate in this prestigious program, which also includes women through Girls State, are expected to become government, military and commercial leaders of the country. Among those who reached their goal are: Neil Armstrong, Tom Brokaw, James Campbell, Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Michelle D. Johnson, Michael Jordan, Rush Limbaugh, George Pataki, Harry Reid and many others.

“I enormously value that first trip to D.C. as Boys Nation. We met seven presidents; Harry Truman was President at the time. To be introduced to him, we formed a line and told him our names and where we were from; when I introduced myself he exclaimed: “Oh Dennis Chavez is a good friend of mine!” referring to the Senator from New Mexico. I met the Senator there also,” says Padilla.

Dennis Chavez was elected to represent New Mexico in the House of Representatives in the United States in 1930 and the Democratic Party nominated him to the Senate in 1934, making him the first American of Mexican roots to take the position. He continued to be elected until his death in 1962. Due to his merits he was the second most important Senator in the United States, very influential and powerful.

A few days later he was offered the opportunity to study at West Point for the Army or the Naval Academy. He chose the West Point but did not pass the physical exam because of his knees. They asked him if he’d like to go to Georgetown and he answered, “I’d like to but I don’t have the money.” “If you had the money would you go?” Padilla gave a resounding “yes!”

Senator Dennis Chavez offered him work in the Senate. Padilla had recently finished high school, he had no experience and so he gladly worked as a messenger in his office. At Georgetown he studied History and Government and when his schedule got complicated, it was immediately changed and they gave him other jobs. When he graduated from Georgetown, the Korean War had begun.

Did you go to war?

I was one of the first called but I was disqualified because of my knees. I felt bad about not serving my country during this war. That was why I decided to study law. I lost my job with Chavez when Eisenhower took office in 1952 and brought with him a Republican Congress, but they put me in the Department of Labor, and there I met the one who would become my wife, Betty. She had a summer job there, so we shared the same office.

Padilla was working at the Capitol when he met Betty, it was a very glamorous job and he loved it. After a very harmonious courtship they married in 1955.

At the Capitol he met very famous people such as Jack Kennedy, Dick Nixon and Joe McCarthy, who was not well liked, and many more. He worked for six months in the same office as Bobby Kennedy. He needed experience, so when a dignitary came visiting from New Mexico, the governor, the attorney general, or some other representative, his job was to give them a guided tour of the city, take them to the White House. The gate guard was already informed so when Padilla arrived, the gate was opened immediately. He had the liberty to show them all the rooms and places within the White House.

Eventually he was offered a job with the Senator Prescott Bush from Connecticut, in spite of being Republican. The Senator was very interested. He went to the interview and was selected. Padilla worked three years with him while he went to law school. He was already 25 and he questioned how secure working with a Senator was, although Bush had decided to run for a second term and then retire. “What will I do when I’m 30 and the senator retires? I asked Betty.”

Soon State Farm Insurance hired him, although that was not what Padilla aspired to be. He started in sales. It was not a high profile job; I had to knock on doors and offer insurance. Soon he ascended to management in spite of the fact that it was obvious he did not want to be there. His resume and his university degree helped a lot and they paid him well. “I never had a great deal of money, but I had lived well, so State Farm offered me an opportunity and security for me and my entire family,” he says satisfied.

I understand that you are now a Republican, why did you change parties?

I switched to the Republican Party because a lot of things were happening in the Democratic Party that I did not agree with personally or philosophically.

At what time in your career did you do so?

JFK was the last President I voted for as a Democrat. I did not choose Lyndon Johnson, in spite of knowing him personally and two of his assistants who were friends of mine didn’t like him either, I didn’t like his agenda, consequently I started to feel alienated from the party. Probably Senator Dennis Chavez would come out of his grave if he knew I changed parties. But I am a moderate Republican. It was a pleasure to be part of the Democrat Party with very conservative politicians such as Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and JFK. But then the party started moving to the left and I had problems with that. I discussed some of the issues with people in the office and one day the manager, Frances Ortiz said to me, “Manny you sound like a Republican!” “I don’t know what I sound like,” I answered, “ but that’s the way I feel about some things.””

Manny worked for Prescott Bush, a very moderate Republican and the one who made many beneficial changes for everybody; he added new benefits to social security, modifying his original intent. Today, if you are incapacitated and cannot work, you can apply for the benefits offered through social security. He also included insurance for floods, a Federal program; the interstate highway system. Before that the roads had only two lanes, and many other changes.

“Philosophically, parties change from time to time, and the Republican Party has had periods when I wasn’t too happy with them. But it has helped me a great deal and I have also worked for it a lot; I was the person in charge of Hispanic Outreach for Orange County for ten years, and this was the vehicle through which I was able to reach the community, schools and organizations such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I enjoy working with children, because I was young once also, and any advise, motivation I can offer, I do so because in a way I am returning what I got as a young man. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for those who supported me,” says Padilla.

Supervisor Bill Campbell, Chair of the OC Board of Supervisors:

“I have been a friend of Manny Padilla for over 30 years. He retired from his career in insurance just as I was running for the first time for a political office.  He immediately took responsibility for recruiting and managing all of the volunteers for my campaign.  I won and Manny has continued to be politically involved every since.”

Padilla is very generous with his time and knowledge, he could be peacefully retired at home, traveling, seeing the world but instead he has elected to continue to work for the community through the Hispanic Chamber, through the schools, and wherever good, responsible advice such as his is needed. “Fortunately I have Betty as my partner; she has always supported me. I retired from State Farm in 1995. The job always took me away from home, dinners, meetings; she accepted all of it. When I retired, I got involved with civic activities, first I work as a volunteer with the Republican Party and other organizations. A couple of years ago, Betty asked me, “What night will you be home this coming week?” says Padilla.

Padilla has four children, all born on the East Coast. The oldest is Tom, he was born at the University of Georgetown Hospital, the second David, was born in Maryland as well as Kevin and his daughter Elisa, who came nine years later. After 27 years of living in the East, the family decided to move to California. “Our oldest had finished his first year at the university, he came with us but he soon returned to the East Coast. Here jobs were hard to find and there he had left his girlfriend. He lives in the Philadelphia area with his family, he has two children, the only grandchildren we have! Elisa was four when we moved here, so she basically grew up in California. What I consider our greatest success is that all four of our children have university educations, and the ones who live in California are very close to us. State Farm treated me very well; all my children have university degrees. We have always put our children first,” says Padilla proudly.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs who would like to get involved with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?

Whatever obligation you take on, you have to be sure, that if you are married, she agrees with your plans. A lot of my success I attribute to Betty; she was always very understanding and supported what I wanted to do. You can’t be fighting at home and continue fighting at the office. A business owner has to make sure that his family supports him in his business commitments, and I mean obligations to which he has committed. He probably works longer hours poorly compensated- bur benefits comes later. The first is to commit and second, having a plan in order to know where you are going; the plan is the direction. Next is the execution and if it doesn’t work, revision, beginning anew, or finding another way. If you don’t follow these steps your likelihood of success are minimal, in my opinion. I have given hundreds of agents and managers jobs at State Farm in the East and in California. If I saw no commitment on their part, I knew they wouldn’t work out. When a person takes a job, and believes he knows what he got into then discovers the opposite, he loses interest, and from then on nothing works out. I advised them that if they weren’t happy to look for something else, something that made them feel good. Perhaps they’d make more or less money but the important thing was to feel good about it. You need to enjoy life, your family, your career. Remember, first comes the commitment, then the plan. If it doesn’t work revise it or change it or find a different path.

What advantage does the small business man have is he is associated with the Chamber?

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is no different from other organizations but don’t become a member just to become a member. You have to get involved, work and help the Chamber to also progress that is how you will become successful. This applies to any job or relationship in your life. It’s like any other activity, if you don’t participate and don’t get involved nothing will happen by itself. And I got involved with the Chamber because I liked its mission; I liked what it was doing; I have seen many presidents; some were dedicated and good, other not so strong; but they were committed to the Chamber, to the directors, to the members, consequently the Chamber flourished. But there are good and bad times as time passes, and a lot has to do with the economy and the leadership. The Chamber needs young business owners, entities and other organizations and also big companies, and corporations, because they have the resources, because they have the money to operate any agency. It also needs to re-establish a Legislative Committee or a Committee of Government Affairs with which to establish relationships with the legislators, those who make the decisions for the county and the city, and their members can talk about issues and needs so that favorable decisions may be made in the future.

‘“Many years ago, a high-level politician in Washington said to me, “I know you are very motivated promoting a good education, but in this city it’s who you know and not what you know.” But I insist that having a good education and good contacts lead to the perfect condition for success personally and professionally,”’ concludes Padilla.

Manny Padilla has dedicated his life to serving his community, to promoting education and volunteerism. He has done so through different capacities for 27 years in Washington D.C. and he continues to do so in California now for 35 years; planting the seed in thousands of children and entrepreneurs, with his powerful example and his disinterested service.

Interpretation by Peggy Edwards

Filed Under: Outstanding Person


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