A physician’s reflection on Roberto Clemente and his leadership legacy

I am a physician who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I confess that since I was a child, I have always wanted to visit Roberto Clemente’s statue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Recently, my dream came true when a meeting I attended in the city allowed me to see it for the first time. I was overjoyed to personally witness how Pittsburgh had honored Roberto’s memory. There I was, standing in front of such a powerful statue of my childhood hero. They had placed the statue next to a bright yellow-colored bridge leading to PNC Park, the current home of the Pittsburgh Pirates professional baseball team. When I arrived at the site, I was not the only one struck by the moment, gasping in awe. I was just one of many fans from all over the country taking pictures with his statue and enjoying a wonderful memorial to an extraordinary human being.

I was beaming, of course, while telling complete strangers how I had grown up in Carolina and Puerto Rico — the very same town that Roberto and his family are from. Experiencing with others the grandeur of such an amazing role model was very special to me. Others beside me recognized his legacy just as vividly, even 47 years after his death. Many of us took a moment to celebrate Roberto’s accomplishments, recalling how Roberto played a major part in two Pittsburgh Pirates World Series championship teams — first in 1960 and then in 1971. Roberto Clemente was a 15-time all-star, a 12-time Gold Glove winner, the 1966 National League MVP, a four-time batting champion and the first Latin-American baseball player in the National Baseball Hall of Fame!

On my drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking how astounding it was to meet with and witness fans from all over the country sharing the same admiration for my Puerto Rican hero. When I first arrived at the site, I totally expected to be the most excited person to see Roberto’s statue, especially since I had heard so many first-hand stories about him while growing up on our Isla del Encanto. It was pleasantly surprising to see entire families and so many non-Latino fans there paying respect to Roberto. This was all so very moving to me that it made me ponder, “Just what had Robert done to deserve such reverence and admiration? How is it that his legacy continues? What personal character traits made him such an extraordinary person besides his tremendous athletic abilities? What leadership lessons can learn from my childhood hero?”

As I began to recall my childhood memories of people talking about Roberto in Puerto Rico, I remembered him being described as a humble and simple man. I can still see in my memories how he was admired by so many for his hard work and perseverance. Roberto was a superstar who never forgot his humble beginnings and the critical importance of family.

I also recall listening to stories of Roberto’s compassion towards those in need, especially for children. Near our hometown in Puerto Rico, “Cuidad Deportiva” (Sports City), was created to provide a safe place for children of all socio-economic backgrounds to learn and to play sports. As a child, I was very fortunate to have lived so close to this park. Above all, I remembered that no matter whether he was in or out of the spotlight, Roberto was a man of integrity who proudly represented Puerto Rico, as well as the entire Latin-American community, with dignity. Roberto was proud of his heritage and was a fearless advocate for social and economic justice, openly speaking out against racism and repression.

After much reflection, I truly believe that Roberto Clemente’s legacy continues because of his leadership, compassion, and perseverance. Roberto was a trailblazer who was passionate and focused enough to become the best in his profession. Roberto’s dedication and perseverance against all the odds makes him a genuine example to others, including his teammates, family, and friends. Roberto demonstrated a tireless commitment to serving others, especially those in situations of great need. Leading by example and by enthusiastically engaging others to do the same, Roberto transcended cultures, languages, and ethnic differences. And above all, Roberto knew that when he was faced with challenging times, his family and his faith would carry him through.

On the 24th of July in 1970, the Pittsburgh Pirates held “Roberto Clemente Night” at Three Rivers Stadium. There in a packed stadium, Roberto, next to his wife and three sons, with his mother and father in attendance, was recognized for his lifetime of achievements. I was told how Roberto became overwhelmed when he looked towards right field and saw hundreds of spectators wearing “Pavas,” the traditional straw hats worn by his father and countless sugarcane workers in Puerto Rico. Roberto didn’t shy away from his roots or the people who helped him to get where he was. As a result of his deep connection with and honor for his past, Roberto was adored by his fans for his authenticity. I can only hope that those of us who have been given the opportunity to work and serve as Latino professionals in the United States will follow Roberto Clemente’s example. We should all strive to honor his legacy and culture with the utmost dedication, compassion, and profound commitment to the communities which we have been chosen to serve.

Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician and vice-president and medical director, The Care Centered Collaborative at The Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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