Operation Pedro Pan

Struggles in U.S. were few for three lucky brothers

Among some Pedro Pan veterans there's a running joke. They say there are us -- the typical Pedro Pan kids sent to camps, orphanages and foster homes until being reunited with their Cuban parents.

And then there are the three Cepero brothers -- Paul, 16, Eloy, 15, and little Eloy, 11. They were ``the lucky ones.''

Fresh from an Operation Pedro Pan flight, they spent only hours being processed at the Opa-locka boys camp before being chauffeured to the Coral Gables mansion of a millionaire.

'I remember when my brothers and I were driven up to the house on South Greenway Drive, we just looked at each other as if to say, `This is not bad,' '' the elder Eloy Cepero said.

The Ceperos owed their good fortune to Elizabeth Smith, wife of McGregor Smith, the CEO of Florida Power & Light and the man credited with building the Turkey Point power plant.

She had eagerly raised her hand at her Methodist church in the summer of 1962 when volunteers were sought to take in three Cuban brothers fleeing Fidel Castro's communist regime.

''We couldn't have been luckier,'' said Cepero, 63, a Miami-Dade mortgage banker, Cuba music expert and radio host.

Cepero said the brothers' three-year stay with the Smiths were life altering: ``That man treated us like his own sons. The Smiths could not have been kinder to us.''

Life in the Smith household came with a maid, a cook and a chauffeur -- and dinners every Friday at the country club.

Smith also tried to teach the boys how to be successful in America.

'He would give us tips like, `Always enter a room like you own it -- unless you're told otherwise.' Or, 'Always smile at people -- you'll have them in your pocket.' ''

As time passed, the Smiths and the Cepero parents, an attorney and teacher in Bahía Honda, struck up a warm correspondence.

Elizabeth Smith would write long letters to the boys' mother, keeping her abreast of her sons' lives.

''I'm nothing without the boys; please, take care of them, Mrs. Smith,'' the boys' mother wrote back.

There were bumps on the road: A month after arriving in Miami, Cepero got in trouble during summer school at Shenandoah Junior High for misbehaving.

'My brothers were mad at me. They said, `Now they're gonna kick us out because of you!' ''

Smith reprimanded Cepero but never said anything about giving up on the boys.

When the Cepero parents arrived from Cuba, McGregor Smith bought the family a gas station and a house in Tampa.

''They were just wonderful people, that's all I can say,'' said Cepero.