Cesar Villegas, a native of Venezuela, won a well-known singing contest in 1982—the Panoja de Oro Festival. A medical student at the time, he declined the subsequent invitation to represent his country in the annual Festival OTI de la Canción.
Sometimes Villegas thinks about those days—the applause, the newspaper interviews and the man from the record label.
“We want to sign you,” the man said, handing Villegas his card.
But Villegas never signed a record contract; he never became famous.
In Venezuela, it’s a tradition to ask for “la bendicón” (the blessing) from loved and respected elders. Villegas recalled how his maternal grandmother blessed him not only in word but also in deed. When Villegas was about 9 years old, his grandmother found a textbook and taught him English grammar and vocabulary.
Among other learning strategies, Villegas, who aspired to a career at NASA, transcribed and memorized the lyrics of English songs.
Villegas’ late mother, a teacher, and father, an OB-GYN, taught him the value of hard work. A diligent student, Villegas originally studied engineering in college, but the microscopic images of cells in a biology textbook captured his imagination. He switched to premed, graduated with a medical degree and trained as a general surgeon.
In 2005, he left a flourishing practice in Caracas for a postdoctoral position in clinical research at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Villegas stayed at the Health Science Center after his postdoc. During that time, he entered the “Memphis Star Challenge,” a local singing contest. Villegas received a standing ovation for his soulful rendition of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Billy Paul’s No. 1 hit from 1972.
Unfortunately, the show was canceled before it aired. The judges never voted, a winner was never picked.
Villegas came to St. Jude in 2012. He worked as a clinical research associate in Epidemiology for years, before taking a position last year in Global Pediatric Medicine. He uses his background in medical science and his proficiency in Spanish and English to improve the quality of care for children with life-threatening diseases in Spanish-speaking countries.
For example, Villegas recently led the effort to translate educational materials from English into Spanish for St. Jude Cure4Kids, an online resource that shares expert knowledge with doctors and other health care professionals worldwide.
“I love the idea of being a part of Global Pediatric Medicine’s mission,” Villegas said.
Why is Villegas a doctor and not a singer?
One man—Alfredo Sadel—influenced Villegas’ decision. Sadel, the famous Venezuelan tenor who sang on The Ed Sullivan Show and at Carnegie Hall, met with Villegas in an office at the record label.
"What kind of career are you pursuing?" Sadel asked.
"Well, I'm going to be a doctor."
"You want my advice?
“You're young, you have a voice, you have everything. But you don't have a career. Complete your training. Get your diploma. And then come back and we can talk.”
Villegas took the tenor’s advice, but he never returned to explore a record deal.
“Looking back, I don’t regret anything,” Villegas said.
A father with two boys and one girl, Villegas lives in a nice home in a nice community. His wife, who also graduated from medical school, works as physician assistant in Memphis for a clinic that serves Hispanic families. Villegas said he still sings in a choir and at get-togethers with friends and family.
“We’re happy,” he said.
“My name is not at the front of anything,” Villegas added, “but I'm part of bringing St. Jude to the world.
“This will be my legacy. This is something bigger than I am.”
A few of Villegas’ favorite things:
The Navegantes del Magallanes, a Venezuelan professional baseball team. “You can take me to a game, and I'm going to enjoy it; I don't care how many hours I'm there.”
Photography “I love taking pictures. I’m taking classes from the New York Institute of Photography.”
The Orpheum “I love theater. I would like to see Hamilton.”