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Rita and Luis Echenique

They started small, but gave big

Rita Echenique was a medical records administrator in Boston when she met a young doctor whose father, also a physician, owned a 22-bed hospital in King City. He invited Rita to come to California to help establish the hospital's medical records department.

"I have no idea what made me come to California," says Rita. "I was not yet 21, and I had never been away from home except to Girl Scout camp. But I went and fell in love with King City and with the beauty of Monterey."

She also fell in love with a young man. But, unlike a Hollywood movie, it was not the young physician who lured her from Boston. It was Luis Echenique, a young rancher whose parents had emigrated from the Basque country in Spain - a sheep herder and a cook who met and fell in love in San Lucas, just south of King City.

His parents came to work for others but, little by little, acquired their own land until they amassed the ranch where Luis was born. Depending on the day you asked his father, he might have told you it was 1916 or maybe 1914 that they began their American dream.

Luis's father came to California with $36 in his bib overalls but left his son with a legacy that, after his death, turned into a $1 million gift to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

"The ranch," says Rita, "ended up being leased to Scheid Vineyards. Everything on top of the ground was theirs, but we owned the dirt. That was our retirement. One day, they asked if I would consider selling it to them, and that's how I could give a million dollars to the hospital. But why I chose the hospital is a better story."

Rita worked for Mee Memorial Hospital for 22 years before retiring at least three times. Once she became restless, she returned to work. The fourth time, she became a medical care consultant for skilled nursing facilities, which brought her to the Monterey Peninsula.

It also initiated her interest in the Community Hospital Auxiliary, of which she has been an active member for 20 years.

In his later years, when Luis was not so tied to the ranch, he would join Rita in her treks to Monterey, and the two would make a day of it at Community Hospital.

The Echeniques also had occasion to use Community Hospital over the years, including two hip surgeries and a back surgery. "Whenever we've been hospitalized there," Rita says, "the care has been absolutely top-notch. We've been so happy with the hospital and everybody who's in it; we just felt this was the place to give a substantial gift."

In pledging their gift of $1 million in support of nursing education, Rita asked that the gift be recognized by naming the hospital's Healing Garden after Luis, who succumbed to emphysema in 2005.

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