Manuel Balsón, “El Jefe” (1934 – 2015)

Many personal obituaries start by mentioning a favorite memory, or a first memory they have of the departed. This, besides being personal, offers the opportunity for a funny or intimate story or anecdote. On the other hand, professional (read press) obituaries focus on the achievements of the departed.

For my father I am throwing out both styles and let’s see what we get. Part of the reason for this is that I do not have a specific memory, or a funny memory, or a first memory. Well, I have many and not one of them particularly sticks out. Nor do I have a list of achievements for him. He did not discover penicillin, nor the theory of relativity, nor did he invent the light bulb. But from humble beginnings he worked hard to bring up a family.

The secret of his success is due to the vision of his father (my grandfather) Antonio, who sent him to the British School in Madrid, meaning that my father was a rara avis: an English speaking Spaniard in the post civil war, Franco ruled Spain of the 50s.

A couple of times I have heard the cute remark about how the important thing on gravestones is the little dash that separates the birthdate from the date of death. Duh.

Something else to keep in mind is how we label and put people in their little boxes. Yes my dad devoted most of his life to international banking, in fact he was an important cog in the Spanish international banking scene of the seventies and eighties. But that is not all of who he was. Yes was a keen motorist and loved cars and motorsports. Yes he was a keen fan of Apple computers, especially given his age. Yes he managed to track his family back to the mid eighteenth Century, but that is not who he was either. He loved jazz – although later in life he got to appreciating classical music more, so every Christmas I would record for him, originally a cassette tape and eventually CDs and finally USB sticks. He loved to read the newspaper which he did every day without fail. That is another trait I learned from him. He loved food and wine and would equally enjoy a cheese sandwich on a park bench as a Michelin starred meal.

He was a brave and decisive man who at a young age went to London to learn about foreign exchange. He lived with my mother across the street from Ashburton Grove, home of Arsenal Football club, but that did not make him an Arsenal fan, if anything he was a Real Madrid fan. After learning about foreign exchange in London, he started an upwards trajectory that would not stop until his retirement in the late 80s.

In the 70s he was offered to start the New York office of the bank. Being the elegant visionary that he was, he opened shop in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. We all packed up and left Madrid, I was twelve. It was a bit traumatic but I would eventually get the hang of moving back and forth, and it would become a way of life. After three years in New York came five in London and then back to Madrid, by then I had started my own nomadic way of life, going to college in Boston and working in France and Switzerland during the summers.

But back to Manuel. He had that kind of knack to be in the right place at the right time and looking good while doing it. Of course it did not hurt that his brother-in-law – my uncle and godfather – was a renowned tailor that made him all his suits!  BTW that is where I get my suit wearing custom, in case you were wondering. The other side of that coin was that unfortunately my dad travelled constantly, so we did miss him at home.

As a teenager up I remember blasting all around Europe in the big old Bismark at 130 miles per hour with any excuse. Eventually I would even be allowed to drive – that was fun.

My father retired in the late 80s and started all kinds of hobbies: playing with computers, taking a genealogy course to track his family tree, but most importantly spending time with friends, travelling with them and basically hanging out with all sorts of people. Manuel made friends easily, from all walks of life: artists, Bohemians, noblemen and gypsies, doormen and executives, everybody. About this time he became a part of the Boina club. The boina is the Spanish version of the French beret. This “club” basically consists of a bunch of guys meeting at a great basque restaurant for dinner and appointing 2 new members: a male and a female boinero who had to make an induction speech. This group had a fantastic network of contacts so the list of members is basically a who´s who of Madrid: writers, artists journalists, politicians, professors, you name it, of course my dad with his love of cars was the unofficial chauffeur of the group, picking up and dropping off the new members, this way he always got to hang out with them one on one!

For years every morning he would walk around the Retiro Park in Madrid, and he would often meet people there. Some of them became close friends. He walked every day until he no longer had the strength to walk out the door. The twelve years that I lived in Madrid, I always loved living overlooking the park so I had the light and could run and walk. Many weekend mornings I would bump into my dad walking and I would walk with him. Those walks were very special.

Possibly his biggest project after retirement was installing and improving the sprinkler system at the country house in La Navata. In fact, more of a hobby, it might have been his summertime obsession. I joked with him that he was like Enea Silvio Carrega, the hydraulics obsessed uncle in Italo Calvino’s story Il barone rampante. Fixing the sprinklers, changing water pumps, pumping water from one well to the other, tweaking the irrigation software. For this project he would enlist Mohammed, our local gardener to dig a ditch here, uncover a pipe here, make a hole here and so on. You would wake up on a hot summer morning and see chubby Mohammed trudging around the garden following my father who would be wearing his immaculate Panama hat overseeing the watering situation.

My father was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer in 2012. Thanks to the phenomenal staff at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and specifically to Dr. Sastre, who managed to sneak him into the last spot at a clinical trial for a new pancreatic cancer drug manufactured by Celgene. This was a massive and miraculous success that increased my father’s life from an average of 5 to 9 months to three and a half years. These have been a tough three and a half years for Manuel as he struggled with his illness. The last few days, my mom, terribly stressed from being basically the sole caregiver all this time, took advantage of the fact that I was home from North Carolina to take some days off in Mallorca with her grandchildren. So I spent my father´s last week alone with him. Despite the fact that it was a tough situation for us, we had a very nice last bonding experience. We did not talk much, as by then he was spending most of his time sleeping. I slept on a bed next to him, to help him at night.

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Manuel died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 3 on his bed, surrounded by his family, like Don Quijote or Rodrigo Manrique.

9 thoughts on “Manuel Balsón, “El Jefe” (1934 – 2015)

  1. Dear Antonio
    My condolences for your Father. I met him twice or thrice only but have sweet memories on him. I remember him as gracious, elegant and kind. there was no need nor reason for him to do so but he was gentle and attentive to me. I am sure his passing is a great loss. Your text is a lovely orbituary and gives us a real feeling of who he was and who he was to you.
    A big hug

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Antonio,
    What a post! I appreciated every bit of it.
    I am honored to have known your father, though briefly, during my short time living in Madrid and will always remember with fondness the incredible hospitality he showed my family (as did you and your mother) when my parents and sister visited me in Madrid. What an unforgettably fun and delicious lunch that was!!
    Spending the last days by his side was very tough I am sure, but special also.
    No doubt he was proud of you and comforted to have you there with him at the end.
    Sorry we missed each other last week, but let’s resolve to make time when you come back stateside.
    Condolences, prayers and a giant hug,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Antonio

    I was so saddened to hear of your father’s passing. Your posting was so moving and so full of a son’s love. I am so glad for you that you got to be with him in his final days and hours.
    You are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope that you find peace in the celebration of the life he lived fully and with gusto.

    warmest regards



  4. Bueno, supongo que yo tendré que decir aquí (ya que tu lo omites por lógico pudor) que tu padre aparte de un fluent english speaker era un tio muy listo (y yo lo sé sobre todo porque me lo dijeron en Ibercorp gente que trabajó con el!). También me contaron que, volviendo de una gira de los países árabes le hizo una presentación a Botín (padre!!) vestido de beduino, con dos c.. y un palito. Así que esto nos puede valer como funny story (y seguro que hay mucha más conociéndole… ). En fin amigo, sólo decirte de nuevo que lo siento mucho y enviarle un abrazo a tu madre y a todos los Balsón….

    el patxi

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Antonio- I met you in 1982 in Cleveland. I had recently departed from Banco Santander. I ran across your important article about your Dad, who I so admired. I have been “charging forward” with my own career for years after my incredible experience working for your Dad. I am truly sorry for your
    Loss. I remember fondly , being in your apartment in London with your Mom , with lighting speed preparing una tortilla espanol. I also had the pleasure of working in the NYC office at the Seagrams Building while you Dad was the
    manager. I think of him often and pray that my teenage children are lucky enough to come across someone professionally as generous and loving as your Dad. I was very young when I started working for your Dad (19y/o) and he gave me incredible guidence and pushed me to be my best. I miss him
    And think of him often.
    Again my deepest sorrow on your loss but if I know how he treated me I can only image how w wonderful and generous he was to
    You and your family
    Un abrazo may fuerte
    Richard W Owens


  6. Pingback: 10 years (almost), 200 posts, 100 likes | Antonioyrocinante's Blog

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