Often enough we have heard the expression from older folk: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And to an extent, I would have to agree. There is no doubt that advances in technology in various fields, including telecommunication and medicine, have made things better for us. But while phones have become smarter, we can’t always say the same about their owners.
And this is where I salute the likes of former Vice-President, and Foreign Affairs Secretary, former senator, and former Commission on Audit Chairman Teofisto “Tito” Tayko Guingona, Jr., whom, I believe, celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday, July 4th. Quite a fitting date for the man, I would say, for it was on the same day in 1946 that the republic was born from the ashes of war.
Having been born in 1928, during the American period and just before the Commonwealth Era, Tito was celebrating his 18th birthday on the day the Philippines was granted independence after World War II, as proclaimed by then US President Harry S. Truman. The Philippines was officially released from the clutches of the United States as that sovereign’s one and only colony in Asia.
About seven years ago I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Tito, and as I had noted in a previous column, what struck me during that candid dinner conversation at his New Manila home was that despite his advanced age, the elderly statesman remained full of life and hope and for the country.
At the time, if I recall correctly, he could still play tennis at nearby Quezon City Sports Club. I am uncertain if he still could, nowadays. I suppose most days are now spent reading or perhaps putting down notes. Or spending more time on much needed rest. At 90, one’s physical activities can be significantly limited, but I am sure his mind and his spirit remain vigorous and active.
What also truly struck me at the time was his modesty. Tito has been living in the same New Manila residence for 55 years now. And if you get to visit his house, it has not changed much since it was first built, architecture and structure, and all. Other than a renovated dining room, it is pretty much an “old” house. Clean, well-maintained, but old still.
He goes around town in an old Toyota Innova, and despite having served as Vice-President from 2001 to 2004, in his home or around him, you see none of the trappings of power or officialdom. No Benzes or BMWs in his garage. And his five-decades-old house is adorned not by expensive treasures but by memorabilia of a life well spent serving others.
I recall him to be sharp, witty, and eloquent during that dinner seven years ago. He shared a number of things, including his thoughts about US President Abraham Lincoln: “When he was president, he was criticized much, almost constantly, and bitterly, even by his own party. But, eventually, he managed, because he was basically honest, he had values.”
Lincoln was a self-educated country lawyer from very humble beginnings. He was elected 16th president of the United States in 1860, and then again in 1864. He was into his second term when he died in office in 1865, felled by an assassin’s bullet. Lincoln was credited for preserving the union, as he led the country through Civil War, and ending slavery in the US.
I recall Tito sharing that Lincoln, who led the US through its most turbulent time, was defied even by his own military commanders. And, at one point during his first term as president, was almost ousted. And yet, despite these struggles, he prevailed and even managed to successfully win a second term.
He also noted that some Philippine presidents were “sayang” or a waste, including Ferdinand Marcos, who first became Chief Executive in 1965. Marcos, he said, could have been like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whose strong leadership of the island-nation helped reform it from a problematic territory to a modern, first-world nation.
Given his comments, and his body language, during the conversation over dinner seven years ago, I could not help but sense that Tito, at 83, was just as passionate about nation-building as he was four decades prior. I can only hope that that passion and spirit, and that eagerness to help or offer counsel, remain with him still despite his advanced age.
Tito Guingona was in “power” for 18 years, from 1986 to 2004. He had been Commission on Audit Chairman, Executive Secretary, Justice Secretary, Foreign Affairs Secretary, Senator, and Vice President. Prior to this, he was a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1971. And being in the opposition at the time, he was jailed twice during Martial Law.
His family has been in public service since the 1930s. His wife, Ruthie, has been Gingoog City mayor and Misamis Oriental governor. His son, Teofisto III or TG, has been senator and congressman for the second district of Bukidnon. And Tito’s father, Teofisto Guingona Sr., was Governor of the entire Mindanao Island during the term of President Manuel Luis Quezon.
The Guingona family has had access to government, politicians, industrialists, and other important people, as well as “perks” and “opportunities” in government and in business for almost 90 years, up until TG stepped down as senator in 2010. And, to date, all that Tito has to show for all those years is an old home, an old car, and his books and memorabilia.
But, to me, more than anything, his family also leaves an unparalleled legacy of public service by three generations. They may have had highs and lows, but they have always been unblemished. And, in Tito’s case, it is a legacy of public service that can come only from the true Atenean that he is, a real man for others.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council