Column: ‘Noted with excitement but with trepidation’

Published on December 29, 2015.

A text message Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc sent me about a year ago captures for me both her trademark wit and the character of our working relationship. On Jan. 6, I sent her an advisory, that an event I was helping organize in the run-up to the Pope’s arrival was surprisingly moving forward and pushing through. “In the last 2 days, we got unexpected confirmation from the 2 main PH bishops that they will take part in our Inquirer Conversations on the papal visit,” I texted. I gave the details, and then aired the hope that, despite the late notice, she could still grace the forums. The first one was in a mere four days.

Her reply: “Noted with excitement but with trepidation!”

I have been mulling over that phrase, in wonder and with gratitude, since the sudden, shocking news of her death. Like many, I was driven to look for traces of her life on mine; it was inevitable that I was led, too, to the text messages she was so assiduous in writing.

She encoded our universe in so many other ways, of course. At this point I must apologize; we see the beloved through the prism of our experience; there will be too many “I”s in the following account, but it cannot be helped.

LJM agreed with then opinion editor Jorge Aruta that I should be hired in part to write editorials for the newspaper; I have been happily doing so since 2001. In 2007, she gave the green light for my column. I had waited to talk to her after she had put the paper to bed; we discussed the pending proposal, and I spoke about Jorge’s idea to create space for new voices—I went on, but LJM had already seized on the phrase. “New voices. New voices.” She started nodding her head. What column title do you have in mind, she asked. “Newsstand,” I replied. I started to explain why, about the role the physical newsstand plays as a stand-in for the public square, and its personal hold on me, but she had already moved ahead. “I like it!” she said. And that was that.

In 2010, she signed off on my request for a book writing leave—a generous two months off, with pay—to write my first book on Rizal; I was more than happy to acknowledge the debt in the book’s first pages. In 2011, on the day the news broke that I had been granted a Nieman, we chanced upon each other in the third-floor lobby. I walked with her from the top of the stairs to the newsroom door, chatting and, just as she was about to pass through the door, she said something to me that I will never forget, something personal about herself and her well-wishes for me. I remember it word for word.

Back to last January’s text message: “Noted with excitement but with trepidation.” There was a history, and an entire philosophy of journalism, to that.

LJM had a theory of the “kumpas,” the conductor’s art, in the running of stories. She believed it was our duty to set the news agenda, but there was a time and season for everything. I’m afraid it took me some time to understand it, even during the two years I spent at the news desk. But it worked, often to great effect. The pork barrel scam stories, for instance, ran for eight consecutive days; LJM chose the day to start it, and with which story. It wouldn’t have created such an impact otherwise. But stubborn me sometimes marched to the beat of a different drummer—that largely explains the trepidation part. But those occasions when I learned to march to her beat were unforgettable. Sometimes, she would text: “Go for it!”

The most important message she ever wrote me was something I read but did not receive. I read it but did not receive it.

At the end of my fellowship year in the United States, I brought home autographed books for a few of the near and dear. In her case, I chose the then newly released biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Iconic, innovative, one-person institutions: I thought there was resonance there. At first Isaacson balked, when I asked him to dedicate the copy of the book to “Letty Jimenez Magsanoc.” He asked, “Can I just make it out to Letty?” But seeing the disappointed look on my face, the former Time editor and CNN head complied. He wrote out the full name.

When I reported back for work, I left the book with a note for her. A few days later, at a general meeting, LJM chose to sit at the end of a row of chairs where I happened to be sitting. When she saw me, about five or six seats away, she said, “John! I’ve been trying to send you a text message! For some reason I can’t send it.” And then, memorably, she took out her phone, looked up her message, and then said: “Here.” The phone was passed from hand to hand to hand, until I held it and read the message.

It was the longest personal message she had ever sent me, maybe about two printed paragraphs long. It was in essence a thank you note, but it was LJM so it was more than that: It was warm and welcoming, candid and congratulatory, effusive. Beaming, I passed the phone back, and it went from hand to hand to hand, until LJM reclaimed it. “Thank you, Ma’am,” I said across the seats.

So the most important message she ever wrote me I don’t have a copy or record of. There must be a lesson in that.

The most lacerating responses to her sudden passing have been our shared cries of “What will happen to us now? What will we do now?” We feel orphaned, and yet surely she raised us well.

Back, then, to the future. We have to look forward to it, with some trepidation, yes, but with great excitement. The future is ours to shape—because LJM prepared us for it.

Remarks prepared for the program of eulogies in honor of PDI editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, Dec. 28, 2015.

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