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A mayor to remember

The destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch robbed millions of people in Central America of their loved ones, their homes and businesses, sometimes even the very soil under their feet.

It also took away the mayor of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. This would have been bad enough in normal times, or if César Castellanos were a normal mayor. But for many in Tegucigalpa, his death on Nov. 1 was an especially tragic loss.

After taking office last January, Castellanos quickly established himself as a hands-on activist, totally committed to making his city work. ¡A trabajar! (Let's get to work!) was his often repeated call to arms.

He was also a compelling personality who called himself "El Gordito" (Fat Man) as a way of breaking down barriers between his office and his constituents.

As Hurricane Mitch battered Tegucigalpa, residents could at least take comfort in having a leader that they had come to trust and respect. Castellanos threw himself into the job of doing what he could to reduce the tragedy, even going from house to house in high-risk areas, warning people to evacuate.

On Nov. 1, as the hurricane continued dumping record setting amounts of rain. Castellanos boarded a helicopter to visit a spot on the Choluteca River where debris was damming up the water and threatening to cause even more damage. But his helicopter was only a few meters off the ground when an electrical malfunction touched off a fire. Castellanos, a city official, a cameraman and the pilot died in the crash.

Eulogized by El Heraldo columnist Mario Posas as "one of the most enthusiastic and popular mayors in recent times," Castellanos was also one of the most theatrical. Determined to reach all levels of society with his message of civic betterment, he served plates of spaghetti to poor people, took personal charge of the campaign to clean up the city's markets, and called for the creation of a "Pigs' Club" for those who ignored his exhortations to keep themselves and their city clean.

Just two hours after his inauguration as mayor, he and hundreds of his followers showed up at a poor neighborhood to inaugurate a new soccer field.

Castellanos ordered crews to fix up the streets and plant trees in the parks. He personally met with owners of bordellos to persuade them to move to areas where they wouldn't be a nuisance to the community. He cracked down on street vendors, vowed to fine property owners that didn't take measures to prevent fires, and launched programs to help children.

Although Castellanos was a natural politician with clear presidential ambitions, he spent most of his professional career in the field of medicine and public health. With a degree in neurosurgery, he held positions in national and international professional associations, meanwhile performing more than 3,000 operations. Appointed his country's health minister, he was voted for three consecutive years as the country's best government official. He served as president of the Executive Committee of the Pan American Health Organization, and was president of the Latin American Neurosurgery Federation.

He was the kind of person whose loss would be deeply felt even in the best of circumstances. His call ¡a trabajar! will be sorely missed.

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