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South Bend Tribune

Visit To City Lasts Three Decades; Holidays Bring Out The Best In Hospital Worker

MARGIE DAVIS, Tribune Correspondent

November 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

MISHAWAKA -- Joaquin Robles was born in a family of six children in Carolina, Puerto Rico. His father drove a taxi; his mother was a homemaker.In 1969, Joaquin wrote to a cousin in South Bend, asking to come to visit for a week.

"That week hasn't ended yet. I don't know when it's going to end," he says. "I spoke English not at all, so I went to evening classes to learn."

"Hispanics get classified all the same way. We can't speak English, can't read, can't write. We make mistakes, same as somebody learning Spanish would make mistakes," says Robles, whose own parents encouraged high school but no further. "Our young people have to focus on education. As this country progresses, it gets more technical. Young people need to keep learning. Some of them think that working in restaurants is all there is. Our culture is, you are raised to work. If someone gets a job, that's the best. But today, the basis for the future is an education."

His lack of English did not hamper his social life.

"I was walking down the street and this girl asked if I needed help. At that moment I had very broken-down English. We talked a little, and I was able to ask her out for the next day, and from the next day, here we are."

Joaquin and his wife, Cherllyn, have been married 33 years. They have a son, Richard, and a daughter, Juanita.

His first job, with a meat plant, lasted 11 years until the plant closed in 1983. From there he went to the dietary department of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend. After a year, he transferred to the pharmacy as a transporter.

Twenty years later, his position was downsized, but he was offered his current position as radiology transporter at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka, where he takes patients to and from the X-ray department. He works at the hospital from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., then goes to his second job at Popeye's, from 5 until 8:30 p.m. He has worked at both places for more than 20 years and is proud that he has missed only one day's work in that time.

At the hospital, he also serves occasionally as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients.

"I go where they need me, whether in ER or on the floor, and I'm glad to do it," he says. "People need help, especially sometimes when they have a sick child."

In 1992, he returned to Puerto Rico for his brother's funeral.

"Gosh, it changed a lot. There's factories, motels, hotels. It's more crowded because people from other countries move to the island. It looks like the United States, but the only thing is, we can't vote for the president.

"There is poverty, and like the poor in all countries, they don't know what's going on," he says. "We don't understand why the poor are so desperate. They pay with their lives."

Joaquin has appeared on a number of radio programs. He was featured for 12 years on WSBT with Olga Fernandez and Ramon Rodriguez. He has enlivened Sunny 101.5 with his renditions of "Happy Birthday" and Christmas jingles. His Notre Dame football game predictions have been heard on U93 as well as on the Lisa and Hummer Morning Show on B100.

But it is for his costumes that he is best known around the hospital.

"He was a pirate once. A rabbit. I can't always understand him, but you see the costume and it makes you laugh," Carol Kanney, charge nurse in Outpatient Surgery at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka, says of Joaquin. "My favorite is when he dresses like the Notre Dame leprechaun and walks around, pushing patients in a wheelchair, saying, 'Go, Irish,' totally deadpan. It cracks everybody up."

Most of the year, he dresses conservatively, only a badge and lab coat marking his employee status. But holidays and Notre Dame games bring out another side of this quiet, short-statured man.

"I started with the leprechaun. I've been doing him for home games for 20 years," he says. "This year I'm a Quaker for Thanksgiving; in the past, I've been a Puritan and an Indian."

He has drawn his share of criticism.

"When I dressed up like Lincoln, people say, 'Oh, I've never seen a Lincoln so short.' I tell them I'm his nephew.

"For New Year's, I do the old man, Father Time. I don't do the baby New Year, though. Hispanic Santa, that's another one. I was an elf for quite a few years," he says. "But this year, for Christmas, I'm doing Cat in the Hat. It won't require so much since I already have the tail. I just needed the hat."

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