I refer to him as the Quintessential Old-Timer. It was the way he did things, the way he went about them, in the past when he was in Congress, that I admire the most about him. He is definitely upper crust, but he will not strike you as high society, or snooty, or snobbish. On the contrary, he is very down-to-Earth, very folksy, and quick to offer a smile and firm handshake.
On the occasion of his 98th birthday yesterday, I write today about my friend, Herminio “Meniong” Guivelondo Teves. I consider it my privilege to know him, to have him as a news subject as well as news source, and to be his friend. He is the oldest living person I know, being four years older than Juan Ponce Enrile, who turned 94 last February.
I saw Meniong last during his 97th birthday. I missed seeing him and personally greeting him this year because of pressing matters, but I am told by friends that he is doing relatively well given his advanced age. Well, what else can one ask for after 98 years? His, in my opinion, is a life well-lived, and much of it for the benefit of others.
An old-timer is a veteran of life — one who’s been around a long time, and one who’s experienced a lot and has much to impart to those younger than him. And, I consider Meniong to be the perfect example of such. It’s a shame his advanced age has finally slowed him down. At 91, he could still play maybe about nine holes of golf.
In fact, at 91, I still saw him attend a Healthcare and Retirement conference at a Makati City hotel, listening closely to presentations on local and international trends in the health care and retirement industries. It seemed, at the time, that he was still on the lookout for new business opportunities. His hometown, Dumaguete City, is actually well-suited as a retirement haven.
I feel there is something about people from his generation, those born from the 1920s to the 1930s, that make them stronger, and live longer than succeeding generations. They seem to be made of sturdier stuff. And, many of them, after the war, were very entrepreneurial, having started many of the businesses that we now see and hear about.
Perhaps, the secret is in the bananas? I recall Meniong always insisting on a banana after a meal. But, seriously, I suppose the continuous search for “new” things to do is what actually keeps them ticking. They are not really motivated by profit or wealth, not even the prospect of living longer than most. It is, simply, the opportunity to do or work on something new.
Retirement was never in Meniong’s vocabulary — not until recently, anyway. Given the opportunity, I guess he would have actually wanted to make “retirement” an industry, or another business opportunity for his family. It would have been something “new” after having operated a sugar mill, his farm, and his Jatropha plantation, among others.
After all, Meniong was born to venture. His inability to keep still can be blamed on his sea legs, I guess.
Born April 25, 1920 as the third son of educators Margarito Pinili Teves and Francisca Guivelondo, he finished primary and secondary schools with first honors. Then, in 1941, he graduated from the Philippine Nautical School at the top of his class with a degree in maritime transportation.
He was deck officer on an interisland ship when the war broke. During wartime, given his training, he helped out on a number of US vessels. He and his fellow crew members ferried military equipment and soldiers all around until a Japanese bomber eventually sunk their ship. After the war, he was head instructor at Cebu Nautical School. He later joined Iloilo Negros Shipping Co’s Cebu City operations and was its manager from 1947 to 1951.
Three years later, his older brother Lorenzo was elected as representative of the 1st District of Negros Oriental. Lorenzo was congressman from 1954 to 1965. From 1967, Lorenzo was senator in the 6th Congress and 7th Congress, but his term was cut short when President Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. In 1978, Marcos appointed Lorenzo as governor of Negros Oriental, and in 1979, he was elected to that same position. He held office until 1987.
While Lorenzo was busy with politics, Meniong was busy with businesses. He became president of Unitrade, Inc. of Dumaguete City; managing director of Tolong Sugar Milling Co., Inc. in Sta. Catalina, Negros Oriental; and, managing owner of both the Tayasan Agricultural Farm in Tayasan, Negros Oriental, and San Antonio Cattle in San Antonio, Sibula, Negros Oriental.
Meniong’s first foray into politics was in 1969, at the age of 49. His brother Lorenzo was elected senator in 1967, allowing Meniong to run for congressman in their congressional district. Meniong was on his first term when Marcos declared Martial Law, closed the House and the Senate, and cut short the terms of all elected lawmakers.
Meniong’s second start in politics was in 1987, when President Corazon Aquino appointed him OIC governor of Negros Oriental after the People Power EDSA Revolt. He served only until the first local elections under the Aquino Administration were held in 1988. Meantime, his son Margarito ran in the 1987 congressional elections and was elected representative of the Third District of Negros Oriental. Margarito or Gary served for three consecutive terms, until 1998.
Meniong got his third crack at politics in 1998 by winning his legislative district’s congressional seat. He served in Congress for three terms, until 2007. If I recall correctly, in his last term in Congress, Meniong was the most senior member (in age) of the House of Representatives, and yet he still managed perfect attendance. He was also always on time for plenary sessions.
I first met Meniong while he was in Congress. He was a credible and reliable news source. Later on, in 2011, he asked me to edit his book on legislating tax laws. It wasn’t Meniong’s perfect attendance or punctuality in Congress that I remember the most. What I truly admire about him is his common sense and practical approach to things, and his effective use of simply logic.
I recall one conversation he had with a US official regarding Public Law 480, a commodity grant program of the US government. This US food aid program started in 1954 as a means for the US to dispose costly domestic agricultural surpluses. Food-deficit “friendly countries” were given the privilege of purchasing US agricultural commodities with local currency or receive them as a form of loan or grant or aid.
While thankful for the US assistance, Meniong noted that it was simply too expensive for the US to keep stockpiling and warehousing surplus perishable farm goods, thus it was more practical for the US government to give them away. By doing so, they establish goodwill with friendly countries, and at the same time help maintain the prices of US farm products.
And, during a debate on whether motels and inns were paying the correct taxes, Meniong suggested that BIR could resort to counting towels and bed sheets laundered on a daily basis to determine actual motel occupancy vis-à-vis revenues and tax payments. He noted that given short-time rates, motel rooms have turnover rates three to four times higher than hotels.
Meniong had also suggested that people seeking public office should be made to submit their tax returns to the Comelec when they file their certificates of candidacy, and that BIR should be allowed to scrutinize these tax returns. Simply put, those who evade taxes should not be allowed to run for office and should not qualify for any government appointment.
Moreover, those seeking to buy motor vehicles should be registered taxpayers as well, and thus should be able to supply to authorities a legitimate taxpayer’s identification number when registering a new motor vehicle. The logic is that if one can afford to buy a car, then one is presumed to have income, and is further presumed to have paid income taxes.
I admire Meniong the most for his wisdom. But wisdom, of course, is not something that comes naturally to all those who age. Meniong’s good judgement results from his broad experience and his thirst for knowledge and having lived long enough to learn from what he has seen and experienced. If only we can all be like him, in this regard.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of Businessworld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council