Times reader pays it forward for woman without a car

Hector Delgadillo says he saw something of himself in Carmen Mendoza and her trials of getting around Los Angeles by bus. So he and fellow employees did something about it.

If you think the best Christmas presents are completely unexpected, you-gotta-be-kidding-me surprises, here's a holiday story you might enjoy.

For proper context, we need to go back to 1975 and the beginning of a long love affair. Hector Delgadillo was a banquet manager at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, and in the employee cafeteria one day, his eye was drawn to a hotel worker he recognized from his youth. Her name was Bobby Sanchez, and she worked as a hotel operator.

Delgadillo was painfully shy as a kid, so much so that he'd never said hello to Sanchez, even though she had grown up across the street from him in El Sereno and they both attended Alhambra High School. Delgadillo was still a bashful guy as a young man, and it was Bobby who made the first move, asking him to join her for lunch in the hotel cafeteria.

Suddenly he found his nerve. Delgadillo asked Sanchez out, and they went dancing at the Ivanhoe in Temple City. A week later, they went back to the Ivanhoe and Delgadillo proposed.

"I just knew we belonged to each other," said Delgadillo.

"The draw for me was his kindness," said Bobby. "He very much cares about people."

They were married two weeks later, raised a son, and now they are about to mark their 37th anniversary. They live in Pasadena and "have everything we need," said Bobby. But it wasn't always that way.

Delgadillo's father died when he was young and his mother took to drinking. Young Hector was passed from one relative to another, including his grandfather.

As a young married man, Delgadillo would finish his shift at the hotel and go to work at Ralphs, stocking shelves by night. He met someone who made good money in air conditioning and refrigeration, and decided that's what he wanted to do. So he went to the Van Nuys library between jobs and studied the industry, eventually landing a job with a Beverly Hills air conditioning company.

But he still couldn't afford a car, so he took four buses to get to work from Alhambra and four more to get back home, sweaty and dirty from crawling through attics and under houses. And then one day his grandfather, Alfonso Chavez, surprised him.

"It was an old beat-up Rambler, a 1958 station wagon. He said, 'I saw how hard you worked,' " said Delgadillo. "I looked at it, and I could've kissed it."

From those humble beginnings, Delgadillo hasn't done too badly for himself. He owns Infinity Air Conditioning & Electrical in Pasadena and Turbo Coil in Duarte, where he manufactures refrigeration equipment for hotels and restaurants. And he has 30 employees.

Last Wednesday, Delgadillo was absorbed in his morning ritual — sipping coffee while reading The Times — when he came upon my column about a Bell Gardens woman named Carmen Mendoza. She rides eight or nine buses daily to get herself to work and her children to good schools so they will have opportunities she never had. When I spent a day with Mendoza, we left her house just after 5:30 a.m. and she got home just before 8 p.m.

It was all very familiar to Delgadillo, who passed the newspaper to one of his employees, Jonathan Petty.

"Read this," he said, and when Petty was done, he handed it to a colleague named Jorge Carbajal.

"I said, 'Hey guys, you wanna pay it forward? Let's do something nice,' " said Delgadillo. "So they pitched in a few dollars and I pitched in mine."

Petty shopped the Internet for a used car. They didn't have unlimited funds, and the purpose was to buy transportation, not luxury. Delgadillo had the old Rambler in mind.

Petty came up with a list of options, and Delgadillo pointed to one and said, "That's it."

Like the Rambler, the gold-colored 2004 Kia Sedona minivan had been around the block, and Delgadillo went to have a look and make sure it was in good shape.

"It was really nice, in mint condition," said Delgadillo.

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