Former singer finds new voice helping others battle cancer

Ruben Gonzalez-Crespo once dreamed of becoming an opera singer like his father.

It was his father’s singing career that led the family to move from Puerto Rico to Chapel Hill in 1984. They came to visit a friend who had studied piano at the Julliard School in New York City and had served as his father’s accompanist.

But the family liked Chapel Hill so much they stayed. Gonzalez-Crespo, who was then 24, single and still living with his parents, spoke so little English that when he was in public he chose not to speak at all.

“When we were at gatherings where my father was singing his music, people would ask him if I was mute because I would stay silent because I was afraid to make a mistake,” Gonzalez-Crespo said.

He looks back on those days and laughs, especially given the amount of talking he has done since. For the past decade, Gonzalez-Crespo has served as a Spanish interpreter at UNC Hospitals, most recently at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

The quality of his work earned Gonzalez-Crespo a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award this year.

That brings a smile to his face, too, because what began as a job has turned into the lifelong calling that he once thought singing opera would be.


Gonzalez-Crespo was a tenor, like his father, and expected to follow in his footsteps when he enrolled in the School of Music at DePaul University in 1989. A year later, he returned to Puerto Rico to study at the Conservatory of Music.

He never completed his degree in Puerto Rico. Instead, he got married. When he returned with his wife to Chapel Hill, finding a job was foremost on his mind. In January 1993, he began working at the School of Medicine.

Read more in the University Gazette.

Published November 19, 2011.