It's the classic public relations nightmare: Five days before Christmas 2006, a record 29 inches of snow fell on Denver within two days, stranding motorists and trapping entire neighborhoods.
Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, public works director for the nation's 25th-largest city, stood unfazed before camera crews and newspaper reporters, calmly answering questions. What's a little public outcry compared to being temporarily orphaned at age 10? In a strange country? If nothing else, the trauma of escaping Cuba's revolution was excellent preparation for a life in public works.
Vidal was one of 14,000 children airlifted to the United States as part of Operation Peter Pan in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro and his supporters militarily overthrew the U.S.-supported Batista regime. Like many Cubans, Vidal's parents initially supported Castro. But as the new government began nationalizing businesses and farms, outlawed religion, and asked neighbors to report their neighbors' contact with foreigners and other “suspicious” behavior, they changed their minds.
When Vidal landed in Miami, no one was waiting for him. Authorities sent him to a Catholic orphanage in Pueblo, Colo., where he lived for several years before his parents were able to leave Cuba and the family reunited.
Vidal shares the details of his journey in Boxing for Cuba: An Immigrant's Story of Despair, Endurance & Redemption, released in November (available at www.ghostroadpress.com.). Written over five years as a legacy for his five children, he interweaves the story of his family's journey with the story of Cuba's struggles over the same period of time.
“The title is a metaphor for the many rounds in the fight for Cuba that have taken place over the last 50 years,” says the 56-year-old. “It represents my parents, and people like them, who fought so hard to retain their way of life in the chaos of Castro's revolution. It stands for acclimating to this country while trying to retain the Cuba that was in me. It represents the 11 million people fighting to determine their destiny in Cuba. And it represents my own small fight to better U.S.-Cuba relations.”
Though he spent 23 years at the Colorado DOT, eventually rising to executive director, before being named the Mile High City's top infrastructure manager, Vidal didn't aim for a career in infrastructure.
His original goal, ever since seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, was to be an astronaut. But while earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Colorado, a counselor convinced him that no airline would hire a Cuban pilot. “This was the early 1970s, when people were high-jacking airplanes to Cuba almost weekly,” he says.
So Vidal took a civil engineering degree, followed by degrees in leadership from Duke University, Harvard University, and Indiana University.
And though they kid him about when he's going to start sporting the standard writer's uniform of turtleneck and pipe, his 1100 employees have a newfound respect for their leader.
“Most know that I'm Cuban and that I spent some time in an orphanage, but no one knew the extent of the hardship my family had to endure,” he says. “They express admiration that somehow I overcame those hardships.”