Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay of Zambales, the 7th president of the Philippine Republic, died 61 years ago, as his Manila-bound plane crashed in the wee hours of March 17, 1957 in Mt. Manunggal, Balamban, Cebu. Only one passenger — journalist Nestor Mata — out of 25 on board the presidential plane “Mt. Pinatubo” survived the crash.
That was the first time that Philippine history was significantly impacted by “Mt. Pinatubo,” which is also the name of an active volcano in the mountains of Zambales — Magsaysay’s home province. In 1991, 34 years after Magsaysay’s death, Pinatubo’s volcanic eruption became the world’s second-largest terrestrial eruption of the century, and forever changed the terrain of Central Luzon.
Mt. Pinatubo is not unlike Magsaysay himself, who also forever changed the Philippine political landscape when he assumed the presidency on Dec. 30, 1953. He was the first Philippine president elected that did not come from the Senate. He was so popular that his state funeral, on March 22, 1957, was reportedly attended by an estimated two million people, out of a population of just over 20 million at the time.
Magsaysay was said to have been a well-loved president, and his being a stickler for propriety and accountability was legendary. He was president for almost four years and had been in Congress and in the Cabinet before the presidency, but at the time of his death, he owned only one piece of property — his old house in Singalong, Manila that was built before the war.
He also paid with his own salary, and never charged to Malacañang, the meals of his teenage children and their friends when they would occasionally visit the Palace. Even the debut of one of his daughters, which was held at the Palace, was paid for by the President himself, as he “scrupulously” delineated personal or private from public expenses, according to his son and namesake.
Even fuel for the second-hand Ford car his son was using at the time was also charged against the father’s government paycheck. In fact, President Magsaysay’s last paycheck for March 1957 was for only P2,000 — his monthly salary was P5,000 — because of numerous deductions on it. That was how Magsaysay conducted himself as president.
After his death, his widow and children got by primarily through a modest pension, and the generosity of others.
At the time, the Singalong house was rented out, forcing the family to borrow someone else’s house for about a year. A new house was later constructed using the proceeds of Magsaysay’s accident insurance, with the lot, architectural services and construction materials donated by the late president’s friends. The president’s widow, Luz Banzon, lived in the same house for almost 50 years, until her death in 2004.
What is not as generally known is the fact that Magsaysay was not exactly an achiever in school. In high school in Zambales Academy in San Narciso, for instance, his “teachers regarded him as above average, although he was one of those with the most absences and was about the most mischievous student.” And algebra, geometry, and arithmetic were “thorns in his side.”
This was according to former UP president Jose Abueva, in his book, Ramon Magsaysay: Servant Leader with a vision of hope, which came out in 2012 as the second edition of a book first printed in 1971. The second edition was co-published in 2012 by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and the Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy, NCPAG-UP.
Abueva noted that getting a university education was also a problem for “easy-going Ramon,” who was more interested in girls, movies, and vaudeville. “Study became incidental to frivolity and pleasure-seeking, which included visits to girls’ dormitories, and joy rides and driving lessons with girls. He did not take his books to school; he only had a lecture notebook tucked in his pocket,” Abueva wrote. The results were inevitable. He was honorably discharged from UP, had to take time off from school, and then move to Jose Rizal College.
The surprising turn came in 1931, Abueva noted, when Magsaysay resolved to find blue-collar work despite coming from a well-to-do, entrepreneurial family.
Given his knowledge of cars and engines, he unsurprisingly tried his hand — and successfully at that — at being a mechanic for a bus company. He was later put in charge of the buses’ repairs and maintenance. He worked during the day and attended night school in the evenings.
He eventually managed to pass most of his courses leading to a bachelor’s degree by 1932, but, he “neither formally completed the requirements for the commerce curriculum, nor paid his arrears in college fees,” Abueva wrote.
But this didn’t seem to matter much to him anymore, as he was gainfully employed at age 26, and was busy courting a young woman of 19 whom he eventually married in 1933.
He lived a very domesticated life during those years, with children coming one after the other. His focus was on work and family. And it was only after the World War broke in 1941, and after Magsaysay became an undercover guerrilla, that he was first thrust into a position of leadership. And the rest, as they say, was history.
Ramon Magsaysay, without doubt, was just as ordinary and as human as the next man. He was imperfect, for sure, having been described by Abueva as both a “restless youngster” and a “blue-collar boss” during certain periods in his life. But, by the age of 35, he became a guerrilla fighter and leader, and after the war, a lawmaker and a Cabinet member.
He was president by the time he was 46 but was taken way before his time. It was six months to his 50th birthday when he died. He managed to achieve in a relatively short period of 15 years — despite lacking academic credentials — what others may not accomplish in an entire lifetime. In my opinion, his impact on Philippine politics and national life remains unparalleled to date.
Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.