Fil Am Wins Design of Obama Medal

by Joseph G. Lariosa

ROUND LAKE, Illinois (JGL) – With only $5.00 tucked in his wallet, Paul Cainto Balan was reluctant to come to America because he did not want to leave a fledging commercial art business in his boyhood hometown of Paete, Laguna, about 65 miles (97 kilometers) south of Manila in the Philippines.

But his wife, Marra (nee: Vitor), his childhood sweetheart, prevailed upon him to leave his art instruments behind to start a new life, build a family and try his luck in a distant land. Marra is from Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

On July 28, Balan lived a dream when President Obama held a medal —  the National Humanities Medal — he designed which the President conferred on ten outstanding Americans during a ceremony held in the White House in Washington, D.C.

“Never in my wildest imagination that I would be invited to the White House to witness a ceremony that would feature my work. I only have to thank God and my wife (Marra) for encouraging me to come to America,” a teary-eyed Balan told Journal GlobaLinks/Philippine Daily in his Chicago’s outlying north suburb of Round Lake, Illinois Aug. 10.

Balan, 41, a native of Pakil, Laguna, designed the gold-plated medal that shows Lady Liberty in a diadem and flowing dress. The pre-Raphaelite image has her surrounded by a sheath of wheat, a dove and a lamp.

Balan, now a U.S. citizen, won a $3,000 prize in a design competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that attracted 131 entries, including two from Balan.

When Balan won the National Endowment Humanities design competition, his wife told him, “See, I told you never to quit.”


In 2010, the U.S. Mint accepted Balan in its Artistic Infusion Program as one of 19 artists who help design coins and commemorative medals.

For the Mint, he has designed two congressional medals honoring Native American “code talkers” and one side of a coin for the U.S. Marshals Service’s 225th anniversary.

He receives $2,500 for each design assignment and another $5,000 if the Treasury Department uses his design for a coin or medal (both sides of the coin), Mint spokesman Mike White was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as explaining.

Although, his work on the side prompted him to take a sabbatical from his mailroom work at CDW at Vernon Hills, Illinois last year, his 14-year contract offered him by the U.S. Mint to design coin or medal was a job offer he could not refuse. This prompted him to give up his job from CDW last Monday, according to Marra, who also works at CDW as customer relations service employee.

There were lots of hugging, kissing and well wishing when he left his job after 14 years, Paul said. A co-employee told him his accomplishments brought honor to Filipinos to a higher level.

Paul is also thankful and grateful to his employer whose vice president, Max Reed, encouraged him to pursue his passion. “I heard my CEO shed a tear when I won the design of the National Endowment for the Humanities medal.”

The CDW even nominated him as one of the 500 Heroes from Fortune 500 companies, joining another Filipino, who was featured for saving two boys from drowning. The other Filipino recipient for Fortune 500 heroes award is Angelo Ramos, a campaign sales executive of Monsanto Company in Cauayan City, Isabela in the Philippines. The award is given to “Fortune 500 workers who, unknown to even many of their colleagues, have performed remarkable acts of goodness.”

Balan grew up in Paete, which is known for woodcarvings and artists. His maternal great-grandfather, Pablo Bague, was a sculptor. His parents crafted wood furniture and chess sets to raise their family of five.


While growing up, Balan copied images of his grandmother’s stampeta (prayer cards) and other images from encyclopedia. He used ballpoint pen in his drawings and used coffee grounds as his watercolor to paint. He stretched denim into a wooden frame and rendered it white with household paint he bought from Manila.

To support himself, he painted religious murals and began designing stained glasses for churches. He attended commercial arts classes at the University of Sto. Tomas for two years but failed to get a diploma for lacking subjects in ROTC and PE.

When he flew to Chicago in 2000, his wife’s grandmother gave him a $5 bill. “That’s the only money I had.” he said.

In Chicago, his wife, Marra, was the provider for the family for several months and he felt bad that he could not be the breadwinner. This made him uncomfortable to resume his painting career since there is no security of income.

He first worked as a waiter and found an entry-level job with his wife’s employer, CDW, in 2001. He became a mailroom employee at CDW recently.

When he got a regular paycheck, Paul started buying art supplies so he could resume painting and sculpting when he was off-duty. He started painting jobs for churches and private homes, which augmented his income. When he sculpted the San Lorenzo Ruiz statute measuring three feet by two feet in 2009, he was paid $7,000. When he sculpted a Cross, five feet by seven feet, he donated it to a church for free.

To keep him up with his peers, he joined art exhibits, some of them sponsored by the Philippine Consulate during the Philippine Independence celebration events in Chicago, and other arts competitions. He said in one of these exhibits, a former artist from the Philippines approached him, telling him that when he came to the U.S., “he threw away his art media and looked for other jobs. Now that I saw you succeed, I will try to buy art supplies and go back to my painting again.” He said he was glad he was able to “inspire another artist to return to an old love.”


One of his prized works that took him a year to finish was the depiction of the Philippine national anthem (Lupang Hinirang). It was sketched on 10 18-by-24-inch panels

According to Wikipedia, the “official town hero of Paete is not a statesman nor a soldier but a woodcarver, the master artisan Mariano Madriñan, whose obra maestra, the lifelike Mater Dolorosa, was honored by the King of Spain with a prestigious award in Amsterdam in 1882. The town was proclaimed “the Carving Capital of the Philippines” on March 15, 2005 by Philippine President Arroyo. It is also believed that the modern yo-yo, which originated in the Philippines, was invented in Paete.”

Since 1996, when the first National Humanities Medal was given, 154 individuals have been honored, inclusive of this year’s awardees. Eleven organizations also received medals. Previous medalists include Pulitzer Prize winners Philip Roth and Marilynne Robinson, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, essayist Joan Didion, novelist John Updike, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, sociologist Robert Coles, poet John Ashbery, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. A complete list of previous honorees is available at:

-Marlon L. Pecson contributed to this report


PHOTO 1:  FAMILY AND FRIENDS CELEBRATE: Paul Cainto Balan (fifth from left) is being cheered by members of his extended family and friends last Sunday (Aug. 10) in his home in Chicago’s outlying northwest suburb of Round Lake, Illinois.  His medal design was used by President Obama who bestowed the National Humanities Medal on ten outstanding Americans during a ceremony in the White House in Washington, D.C. last July 28, where Balan and his wife, Marra (nee: Vitor), seated in front of him, were also invited. Marra is shown cuddling their children, Paolo, 3, and Micailla, 5. Also in photo from left are Remedios Naval, Leonora Milan, Nelda Bagabaldo, Felicidad Vitor, Joseph G. Lariosa, Luis Vitor and Marlon L. Pecson. (JGL Photo)

PHOTO 2: FIL AM DESIGNS OBAMA MEDAL – When President Obama (top photo) bestows a National Humanities Medal last Monday, July 28, on Maxine Hong Kingston, the President is bestowing for the first time a new medal designed by Filipino American Paul C. Balan (photo below left), who is holding his dinner invitations in the White House in Washington, D. C. to witness the ceremony in the White House. Balan’s medal design replaced the previous medal designed by 1995 Frankel Prize winner David Macaulay. Photo below right shows another medal design of Balan being unveiled by Attorney General Eric Holder (from left) and U.S. Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton, and United States Mint Deputy Director Richard A. Peterson for the upcoming United States Marshals Service 225th Anniversary commemorative Coin on Sept. 24, 2014. (JGL Photo by Joseph G. Lariosa)


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