WHEN HIS FOURTH-GRADE teacher at Burlington Elementary School in rural Colorado asked Jesus James Perez what he wanted to do when he grew up, the shy Mexican-born son of a migrant farmworker cleared his throat and said, "I want to be a doctor." The teacher laughed. "She told me to change my ideas because it would take too long and I wouldn't be able to do it," recalls Perez, now 27.

Fortunately, not everyone felt the same way. Five years ago, Perez and his Burlington classmate Sacramento Pimentel, also 27, both applied for medical school, and several of the town leaders of Burlington (pop. 3,000) cut them an unusual deal. The town—on Interstate 70, just 13 miles west of the Kansas border—was desperate for doctors after two of its four physicians retired. The former mayor offered to pay the students' tuition if they would agree to return to practice there for at least a year. But unlike Northern Exposure's, tormented Dr. Joel Fleischman, marooned in his one-moose town in Alaska, Perez and Pimentel are not bound by contract to return. Their $100,000-apiece deal "was all done on a handshake," Perez says. And, come 1999, they'll be there.

The odds were against them. Among Hispanics, the high school dropout rate is almost 30 percent, and only 9.3 percent of them make it through college. But on May 25, the two graduated as doctors of medicine (Perez was Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Colorado. On July 1, they began three-year residencies in family medicine at Northern Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. For Perez, "it's like completing a dream," he says.

The dream began with a border crossing. Born in Durango, in central Mexico, Perez moved to North Hollywood in 1974 with his parents, Jacob and Anna, now in their 50s, and younger brother Raul, now 25. The family followed the fruit-picking season to Florida, Michigan and Ohio before settling outside Burlington, where Jacob found full-time farmwork and Anna washed dishes in a motel restaurant. Jacob, who had left school in sixth grade to support his family, had higher hopes for his son. "Education is everything," he says. "I wanted to study very much, but I just couldn't."

James excelled at math and science, but outside the classroom, life was tough for the only two Hispanic kids in school. "I definitely didn't feel comfortable bringing anyone to my house," says Perez. "My mom didn't speak English, we cooked different foods, and the house smelled different."

Ironically, it was a medical error that fueled Perez's desire to become a doctor. When James was 15, a Denver doctor misdiagnosed Raul, who was having seizures. He said the boy had a brain parasite—one requiring neurosurgery that would have left him partly paralyzed. "My dad fell apart," recalls Perez. "He always had a fear that, since we were a minority, [doctors] wouldn't care as much." For eight months, Jacob shuttled the family between Colorado and California, seeking other medical opinions. Eventually, doctors in California discovered an electrolyte imbalance that limited the oxygen reaching Raul's brain. "They put him on some medication, and he was okay," says Perez. But the trauma of that experience—and a few words from his father—sealed James's ambition. "You saw how those guys were trying to take advantage of us," Jacob told his son. "You need to be in there. We need an insider."

Pimentel, whose family had left his birthplace, Michoacan, Mexico, in the early 1970s, made his decision several years later. In high school, "I was still not that far from my roots," says Pimentel, the second of five children of Israel Pimentel, a farmhand, and his wife, Sanguana, a dishwasher, both 50. "I had a pretty good summer job with the city, and on the weekends I would go out with my cousins and hoe beans or hoe corn." As the only minority students in college prep courses, he and Perez had become close friends. When James decided to aim for premed, Pimentel recalls, "I said, 'What the heck, I might want to be a doctor too.' "

Dr. Barbara Joyce remembers the warm day in August 1988 that the two came to her office at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. An associate professor of microbiology, now retired, she spent the afternoon frantically negotiating course places for the pair, who had no idea they had to preregister. "They kept to themselves quite a bit," recalls Joyce, 66, who became their adviser. "They went home essentially every weekend because they needed to help their families. Because of that, they missed out a lot on the social part of college life."

Still, they found time for dating. As a sophomore, Pimentel met and later married Elsie Segura, 25, an English teacher, and in 1991 Perez married his hometown sweetheart Stacie Stewart, 23, a homemaker. Mostly, though, the Burlington buddies were inseparable. "We would go to class together, study together, eat together," says Pimentel.

In 1992 they graduated together and set their sights on med school. Perez, whose son Adam was born that June, approached the Burlington bank for an education loan. "Then John Hudler—his dad was the mayor—called and said the town might be willing to pay for my medical school if I would come back and practice there," says Perez. Burlington had already spent $60,000 trying to lure reinforcements for its two overworked doctors. Says Hudler, co-owner of the Burlington Record newspaper: "We just got tired of throwing our money away."

Enter multimillionaire Harold McArthur, 85, a former mayor and retired farm machinery dealer who had already donated millions to town projects, including the local hospital. An eighth-grade dropout, McArthur met with Perez and Pimentel, offered to pay the first two years' tuition—$50,000 each—and helped set up a town foundation to chip in the rest. "I don't want to sign any contract or anything like that," he told them. "I know if you want to come back, you'll come back, and all I need from you is your word."

They gave it, of course. Despite their successes, their thoughts have never strayed from Burlington. Pimentel especially wonders what became of one little boy who always beat him at primary school math—until he was called away to work with his family in the fields. "If kids like him had been given a chance," says Pimentel, "they might be doing what I'm doings—or something even bigger."

ANNE-MARIE O'NEILL
VICKIE BANE in Burlington

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane.