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Hector Leon

In Son’s Memory, Father Creates Fund for Cancer Research

Caesar Fernando Leon was just 31 when he succumbed to cancer. That was twenty years ago, and Hector V. Leon still visibly grieves for his son – a big, strong, handsome man who grins from every page of the photo album balanced on Hector’s knees as he sits in his Bonsall, California home and recalls “the good boy, good son, good husband” who died years too soon.

A parent never gets over the death of a child, he explains.

In 1991, Hector Leon needed to find a way to honor his son’s life. So he looked around his environment, gathered up his resources and tremendous strength of will, and discovered a way to convert his own grief into hope for others.

Not a millionaire, nor even a wealthy man, this father of six who grew up in Mexico, moved to the U.S. in 1955 and tended bar at San Luis Rey Downs for 17 years, has become one of The Scripps Research Institute’s most dedicated donors. Since 1992, the annual Caesar Fernando Leon Charity Golf Tournament, organized by Hector V. Leon and held at San Luis Rey Downs, has raised more than $100,000 for cancer research through the Caesar F. Leon Memorial Fund for Cancer Research at Scripps Research.

Cancer has claimed a lot from Hector. His sister died of leukemia. His wife died of colon cancer in 1965, leaving him with six children to raise alone; the youngest, Caesar, was just five years old. “When my wife died, I embraced my children and carried on. I got up early before going to work to get them all off to school, making breakfasts, lunches, dinners, ironing shirts and pants … it was very difficult.”

Caesar was an active boy who golfed, bowled and fished, even after he was diagnosed with kidney problems at age 15 and became a patient at Scripps Memorial Hospital – La Jolla. He spent the next four years undergoing kidney dialysis and waiting for the call to come that a donor kidney had been found. The kidney finally became available and at age 19, Caesar underwent a successful organ transplantation at University Hospital. A graduate of Oceanside High School, he opened his own barber shop in Crown Point and married.

But in 1990, lumps appeared on his neck. He lived another year.

When Caesar was very ill, his face swollen from his condition, the end of his life inevitably approaching, Hector took him out to play golf. It was there in the warm sun and light breezes of San Luis Rey Downs that the idea of a memorial golf tournament to raise funds for cancer research began to form. After Caesar’s death, Hector shared his idea with the friends he’d made tending bar at the country club, made up flyers and took charge of the myriad details that go into organizing a fundraising event without a formal organizational structure for support.

Today, five of Hector’s children are grown and healthy: Ed teaches in Pamplona, Spain; Salvadore teaches in El Paso, Texas; Sergio owns a barbershop; and daughter Dora is a successful businesswoman. And the sixth child, Caesar – the smiling boy who lives in his father’s memory – lends his spirit to the fundraiser held on the greens of San Luis Rey Downs each summer, and to the hopeful research conducted in the laboratories of Scripps Research each day.

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Hector Leon discovered a way to convert his own grief into hope for others.