Monday, June 14, 2010

Olga Padron is making a mid-life career change

SEBRING - Olga Padron has one of those Hispanically lovely faces: eyes like Hershey Kisses, sepia-tone skin, high cheekbones. Did she ever model?

"No." Padron protested the absurdity of the question, sitting across a booth at Panera Bread. "I've got the Cuban gene. I'm barely 5'1".

True. During the 1960s, when Padron was growing up, models were no longer average-sized and perky; they were like Twiggy, 5'6" or taller, and built like boys.

Olga Padron, 52, has lived in Florida since she was 7. "So I'm more American than I am Cuban."

Fidel Castro revolted in 1959, and in 1961 he declared for communism. By 1965, her father realized that life in Cuba was no longer a good idea. Because they wanted to avoid mandatory military service, his two older sons had already asked for political asylum and moved to America with their mother in 1961. He decided to move too.

"I didn't speak English," Padron said. She learned in six months. "There was no one else in school who spoke Spanish so, you know what, you got to learn."

"It wasn't because I was so smart," she added, in an accent that still sounds Cuban - or maybe it's that Hispanic-Miami inflection. Although she still has relatives on the island, most have come to the U.S., some by vacationing in other countries first to avoid Cuba's suspicion.

Growing up in paradise

Ironically, her father felt that Castro's radical government wouldn't survive, and that his family would be back in Cuba in six months. He died in 2006.

Padron married in South Florida and began raising a family near Florida International University on South 16th and 102nd Avenue, but it got overcrowded. The crime rate rose, and so did taxes.

"It's a beautiful place, very dynamic and very diverse. It has beautiful beaches. But it's so expensive - the average person, it's hard to survive." She was a medical office manager, working for a doctor who specialized in head and neck cancer.

Twelve years ago, she began looking for a cleaner, quieter, cheaper place, and that brought her up U.S. 27. For awhile, she worked in another medical office, but she was told, "You should go into real estate. You've got a nice personality for it."

Jim Otterman hired her at Coldwell Banker Highlands Properties. "I had a good run, and it was fun, and I really enjoyed it." After all, she got in on the great real estate rush of the early 21st century.

"But I always wanted to be a nurse," she said. Why she didn't go to nursing school is Every woman's story. At 23, she met a man and lost her head - her words. Her husband didn't encourage her to make that dream come true. She needed to work while the kids were in school.

More changes

But Padron started at South Florida Community College last year. Today, she's working on prerequisites. That's one reason why she enjoys beaches and barbeques more than books. She'll start nursing classes in August 2011.

"There are only 24 available positions," Padron said, a little proud that she was chosen among 300 applicants to the two-year RN program.

A mid-life career change isn't scary to her: "I was in the medical field before, so I know what's to be expected. There's job security in the medical field, and I'm doing it because it's something I've always wanted to do."

Until then, she's still selling real estate, which she said is going for bargain basement prices. The trouble is, real estate agents aren't making much money these days, but they pay for advertising, office expenses, errors and omissions insurance, long distance, gifts to the buyers after closings...

"And you have to have nice clothes and a nice car," she added. "You can't be ashamed when people are sitting in your car."

Real estate agents have a saying: "It's not closed until it's closed." Deals fall through for hundreds of reasons: buyer's remorse, the home that the buyer is selling hasn't sold, the bank won't loan the money...

Some Cubans are avid, Padron is a Cuban watcher. It's a place she might visit, but she never wants to live there. Recently, the Women in White - who publically prayed for their husbands in jail, were arrested and beaten.

"It's an outrage," Padron said, "not only in Cuba, but anywhere. There really is no freedom. He was never elected. And people have to be free. People only leave something because they are not happy, rather risk their life on the Florida straits than to be there. You don't see anyone leaving America in a boat, do you?"

Highlands Today reporter Gary Pinnell can be reached at or 863-386-5828

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