Surgeon. Diplomat. Soldier. Olympian.
The life and accomplishments of Tirso del Junco, who died at the age of 98 on Sept. 4, are not easy to keep track of.
An immigrant from Cuba, he forged a successful career that included taking part in the Bay of Pigs liberation attempt, founding Los Angeles National Bank, and serving twice as the chairman of the California Republican Party.
Yet it was always back in his office as a surgeon that del Junco’s greatest honor — a quiet life of charity — was best demonstrated. There, he kept a wide range of mementos — religious statues, family photos, notes, and more — from countless patients who needed help but did not have the ability to pay.
“My dad was one of those people who was so generous, but people didn’t know,” said Rosie Erikson, one of del Junco’s four children. “In the last few weeks, I have gotten some calls and I just didn’t realize how many people my dad helped because he just didn’t talk about that.”
His commitment to his patients was demonstrated not only by helping those without means, but in the way he chose to treat each client with dignity.
“Every patient he had, he took a lot of time to sit down and listen and hear what they were going through,” Erikson said. “Not just about their physical ailments. It was very important for him to really talk to his patients, and I truly believe his patients loved him.”
Those who knew say del Junco’s charitable work flowed from a life of faith, equally quiet but just as important.
“He could barely walk,” Erikson said, “but he was still going to Sunday Mass.”
It was that crossroads of faith and charity which led to one of his greatest accomplishments: At the time of his death, del Junco was the longest serving member of the Western Association of the Sovereign Order of Malta, a prestigious order of Catholic laity devoted to medical and humanitarian aid.
As a Knight of Malta, del Junco participated frequently in service projects and as a representative of the order at special liturgies.
He had a special connection with the Carmelite Sisters at Santa Teresita, eventually connecting Erikson to serve as charity coordinator. Perhaps the highlight of his tenure as a Knight was when he joined the order’s 2014 pilgrimage to Lourdes — a long-held dream for a man who had a deep love for Our Lady.
Apart from his faith, Del Junco’s list of human accomplishments can seem dizzying. He was a multisport athlete who represented Cuba in the 1948 Olympics in rowing. After graduating from medical school, del Junco eventually became a resident at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles. He also served in the U.S. Army, becoming the chief surgeon at Camp Hanford Army Hospital and serving as a medical officer during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
After settling in Pasadena with his wife, Celia, and having four children, del Junco became chairman of the California Republican Party twice and began serving as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions starting in 1968.
“It was unusual at the time to see a member of a minority group rise to such political leadership and prominence,” said Lance Izumi, senior director for the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and former colleague through the California Republican Party. “So Dr. del Junco’s accomplishment inspired me, as a member of a minority group, in my own political and public policy career.”
In his leisure time, he was a regular at the racetrack — Santa Anita in his youth and more recently at Los Alamitos — where he was known to spend his weekends. Erikson said that when she informed the employees at Los Alamitos of her father’s death, they began to cry.
Del Junco is succeeded by his four children, each of whom carries on his legacy in their own way.
“My two brothers are doctors and my sister is a nurse,” Erikson said. “And they all practice with the same kindness and generosity as my father did.”
Erikson joined her father as a member of the Order of Malta nearly a decade ago, accompanying him on his cherished pilgrimage to Lourdes.
“He loved that he left that legacy in his family,” she said.
A funeral Mass for Dr. Tirso del Junco was held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Oct. 13. Donations can be made to the Order of Malta, Western Association, 324 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025.