Panama and the Joys of Rotary – Dennis Shockley
In 2017 my wife Janet and I attended the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta. While there I met and visited with the then President of the Panama City, Panama Rotary Club, Jovito Salceda. Many of you may recall Club 29 partnered with their club on a scabies and skin cancer initiative for the Guna Indians who live off the coast of Panama in the San Blas Islands. Several of our club members including myself traveled to Panama in 2010 for that project.
During our conversation he casually mentioned that their club would be celebrating its 100th Anniversary in November 2019. I recalled that two members of their club had attended our 100th gala in 2010, Dr. Moises Rios and Marcela González Delgado. Jovito and I exchanged business cards.
In mid-2019 I contacted him to see if their club was planning a celebration and seeking details. After several email exchanges I learned that they had planned a celebration on November 1, the same date on which they received their charter from RI. Janet and I decided it would be a fun trip. She had never been to Panama. So, on three weeks’ notice we booked our flight and a VRBO condo in Trump Tower. It is a JW Marriott now, but everybody still calls it the Trump Tower as it appears on city maps. So, off we flew on our adventure.
Panama City is a beautiful modern city with a skyline not unlike Dallas. It is a major international commerce and banking center. Since my last visit, Panama had built a wider Canal channel to accept the larger cargo ships. We toured the Miraflores locks. They also built a Metro train system which replaced the ugly polluting city buses I saw on my last trip. We mostly utilized Uber. Janet and I spent a week there and visited a nearby island, but this is a Rotary story not a travelogue.
On the morning of the gala and after a dip in the pool, I received a call from Jovito inviting Janet and I to lunch, which we graciously accepted. Jovito and his wife Scarlett picked us up and whisked us away to a very fine restaurant. To our surprise a delegation of eight others was assembled to dine with us including the club President Enrique Illueca. Enrique’s father was President of Panama in the 1980s. Neither Janet nor I speak Spanish, but most Panamanian business people speak English on some level. Remember, Americans were a presence in their country for almost a century and American money is still accepted there.
After a very long and enjoyable lunch with wine flowing, Jovito took us on a tour of their club headquarters. It is in a small one story building that they own downtown. Their club has about 100 members. They have a staff and a foundation that has funded projects throughout their country. From there he took us to the Union Club where their club has their weekly meetings. Some of you who traveled there in 2010 may remember our meetings and the beautiful grand stone patio looking out over the Pacific Bay. We arrived at our condo with just about two hours to change and get to the gala.
Janet and I decided to take a small gift to give their club to celebrate this significant occasion. We purchased a twelve inch high replica of the End of the Trail sculpture located at the National Cowboy Museum. We had it engraved noting that it was from OKC Club 29 in celebration of their anniversary. We chose this gift because that large sculpture right here in Oklahoma City is the very same one displayed at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. That world’s fair was held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.
The gala was held at the beautiful renovated Hotel Central in the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter), the same hotel where their club had its very first meeting. The evening program was in Spanish. There was musical entertainment and more wine flowed. I presented President Enrique with the statuette and explained the history behind it. I also printed it in Spanish. They were truly appreciative of the thoughtfulness of the gesture and the connection between their Canal and OKC.
But we were just getting started. On Sunday it was lunch again with Jovito and Marcela. Jovito is a gregarious gentleman and wine enthusiast, who showed us true Panamanian hospitality in every respect. That day, November 3, is Panama Independence Day. We were invited to join other Rotarians from their Club and others to march with them in an Independence Day parade on Monday, November 4.
We met the parade Grand Marshall Yankee Hall of Fame relief pitcher Marino Rivera. He led the parade, followed by the National Band of Panama, next came the Rotary entourage followed by the Kiwanis and Lions Clubs (of course). Many other bands, schools, military, and beautiful girls in their Panamanian dresses participated. All passed the reviewing stand and saluted Panama’s President, Laurentino Cortizo. What a day. What a trip.
See how much joy and serendipity you can experience in Rotary. And you make forever friends. One final note, I bought a new Panama hat to replace the weathered one I purchased there nine years before. Fun fact: all genuine Panama hats are made in Ecuador!