Published on December 7, 2010.
Without quite realizing it, a week ago I walked into the longest roll call I’ve ever been a part of—but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a reflection on influence, and it begins with a book.
On Nov. 30, the Ateneo de Manila published “To Give and Not to Count the Cost,” a collection of essays about “Ateneo heroes,” to mark (several months late) the end of the university’s 150th anniversary. In the case of some of the subjects, the quotation marks were superfluous. No one can seriously dispute that Jose Rizal, Gregorio del Pilar, Benigno Aquino Jr., Edgar Jopson, Evelio Javier and several more were heroic, however that term is defined. In the case of a great many others, however, their heroism had a decidedly personal meaning: an unforgettable act of charity, a decisive intervention, the gift of lasting friendship or personal example.
In the special case of a very few, the definition of hero was propositional, and it was the essayist’s task to convince us. Two quick examples of a convincing definition: sociologist and theater director Ricky Abad’s tribute to all the members of Tanghalang Ateneo, exemplars of what he calls “the heroism of the ensemble”; and poet-publisher RayVi Sunico’s argument for terror as a tool in teaching, exemplified in the caustic genius of Rolando Tinio and the intense integrity of Fr. Roque Ferriols.
How did the university choose its heroes? It didn’t. Instead, it chose the contributors, 150 in all, and left the choice entirely up to them. (When some declined or failed to meet the deadline, substitutes were found.)
The method meant some unfortunate omissions: As university president Fr. Ben Nebres said in his opening remarks, no one wrote about Fr. Bill Masterson, the visionary who created Loyola Heights and whose centenary we mark today. And as Raul Rodrigo wrote in his introduction, no one wrote about Claro M. Recto. The list can go on: I can add Leon Ma. Guerrero, or Fernando Canon, Rizal’s classmate and a general in the Revolution.
The method also meant some overlap. (And because the school is a Jesuit university, many if not most of the essays were naturally about Jesuits, or teachers, or both.) There are multiple portraits of Fathers Horacio de la Costa (whose genius, Ramon Reyes remembers, preceded him); Catalino Arevalo (known affectionately to many as “Father Rev” and to millions as Cory Aquino’s favorite priest); James O’Brien (the gentle giant who taught Howie Severino about Philippine social reality and Chot Reyes about basketball); and many more. There are profiles of teachers who made a difference: the eminent scholar Rey Ileto on Mon Tagle, Bam Aquino on Ching Chee Kee, Jimmy Hofilena on Fr. Francis Reilly (and again, many more).
At first glance, the list of subjects, in its entirely, might be seen as possessing the capacity to surprise, but having spent several late nights reading and rereading a great number of the essays, I have reached the opposite conclusion. The essays do not surprise; rather, they confirm what we know about the authors. The choices, it turns out, are characteristic.
Let me take only the most obvious example: Business leader Manny Pangilinan’s choice of a philosopher, Fr. Ferriols, as his personal Ateneo hero surprises only if we perceive Pangilinan through the lens of mass media: a corporate turnaround expert, a sports aficionado, a famous workaholic. But as Tony Samson’s profile of Pangilinan proves, the man better known as MVP is erudite, given to using words even in corporate settings in their full depth of meaning—the man, in sum, as philosopher-businessman, if Plato had lived long enough to describe the type.
At the book launch, held in Leong Hall, about 100 of the 150 contributors were on hand to receive their copy of the book. They were called to the stage alphabetically, and only by their names—no titles, no positions, no initials, no Latin honors. It took me some time to realize it, but as the names were called—Norman Black, Renato Corona, Richard Gordon, Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng, Patricia Licuanan, Onofre Pagsanghan, Manuel Pangilinan, Chris Tiu—it occured to me that I was listening to a roll call, of the university gathered as one class. It was the egalitarianism, the level playing field, of the classroom.
* * *
I am only too aware that the Ateneo de Manila has produced its share of villains. The same week I read the book, I was rereading an essay of William Henry Scott’s on the nine clergy of Nueva Segovia, those unfortunate men of the cloth who were tortured in October and November 1896 on mere suspicion that they were part of the Revolution. Three of the four priests—Fathers Adriano Garces, Mariano Gaerlan and the gallant Mariano Dacanay—were brutalized by a volunteer who did not only hail from the Ateneo but was a classmate of Rizal himself! Scott couldn’t help but note: “Enrique Lete y Cornell, a Spanish mestizo from San Fernando, La Union, was Jose Rizal’s classmate in the Ateneo, and elder brother of Rizal’s fellow
propagandist, Eduardo Lete, in Spain. He was killed—one is tempted to say fortunately—during a small uprising in Santo Tomas, La Union, on April 11, 1898.”
It is against this backdrop that the heroism of the many people who have walked the halls of the Ateneo de Manila achieves fuller meaning.
* * *
I was grateful for the opportunity to write about Tina Montiel, a mentor who was never my teacher, but who taught me, between 1982 and 1986, some of the most valuable life lessons. She proved, by personal example, that to engage in politics was nothing less than my bounden Christian duty.