In 1944 my father, Ramón León, won the lottery. $18,000, a fortune! ($500,000 in today's money.) To say that it changed his life and the lives of others is a gross understatement.
His story has become such family lore that ten years ago, I decided I must tell it. “Why do you want to write about me?” my father asked when I said I was writing a book about him. His response shows his humility. What he accomplished is extraordinary, though he’d never admit it.
Ramón León grew up in the remote seaside town of
Maunabo, Puerto Rico. From the age of seven, he carried trays of
pastries on his head into the nearby sugar plantation to sell to field hands.
He saved every penny he earned. At 19, he had a premonition – a vision. A
number flashed across the sky: 14007. “Guillermo,” he said to his friend, “I need to
play that number in the lottery!” He felt it so strongly that for the first
time, he bought a full sheet of tickets, something only the very wealthy did.
And he won. Going from poor to rich in a heartbeat caused as many problems as
it solved. He struggled to use his winnings to stay true to himself, ensure
family and community harmony, and fulfill his dream of being a healer.
Years before, a dentist known in his village as “El Humanitario” had cured Ramón's abscessed tooth. Since that day, Ramón dreamed of helping others as he'd been helped. Puerto Rico had few dentists and no dental school in 1944, so, though he knew no English, he attended
. Although it
was far from easy, his winnings allowed him to live his dream and ultimately
return to Michigan State
University Puerto Rico to carry on the work of
his beloved mentor, “El Humanitario”.
Weeks before my novel inspired by his story was released, one of my dad’s old patients read my story, A Lucky Man (2006). She posted it on our town’s Facebook page. Testimonials from Dad’s former patients poured in, 25 years after he'd retired. “Best dentist I ever had.” “One of a kind!” One patient told how Dad saw him on a Sunday after a terrible car accident. Recognizing the serious nature of the young man's injuries, Dad referred him to the nearest hospital. Dad made house calls, and if someone couldn’t pay, he bartered for services.
My father showed respect to everyone without question, and in turn, earned it. These lessons and values shaped the person I am today in my work as a physical therapist and author. In sharing intimate details of his life as I wrote Luck is Just the Beginning, he revealed a humble heroism.
Life has come full circle. His dream came true and, with the publication of my novel, so has mine. Readers have told me how the book inspired them, how they rejoiced during the good parts and cried during the bad.
I share this story in honor of Father’s Day. From selling pastries on sugar plantations to a career as an acclaimed dentist and healer, with a big boost from the Puerto Rican lottery, my father's story is truly amazing. Happy Father's Day to dads, mentors, teachers, and friends!
Three generations: Celeste (age 50), Ramón (age 90), Elena (14!)