Who I am, what I’ve become and how I could yet be, can be traced back to my foundational years. I’m the product of my upbringing at home, formal education and self-education… to this day.
My parents were my constant spiritual engineers, backbone setters and attitude adjusters until they passed on to the next life. They instilled in me our family values — thoughtfulness, warm hospitality, selflessness, honesty, kindness, the golden rule, restraint, prudence and respect for authority. They brought me along to watch local military parades and listen to public speakers at the town plaza. Although I hardly knew my grandparents, I believe they handed down those traits and values to my parents, and in turn, to me.
My father was a steady example of innate goodness; he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was a congenial conversationalist and would have been a superb diplomat. Papa was always calm and composed even under stressful conditions; he epitomized inner peace. He was humble despite his self-confidence. He lived simply. He was an unobstrusive head of family, and an excellent provider. On the other hand, Mama was the house whip and put the fear of the Lord in my heart. Don’t get me wrong. She was loving, caring and thoughtful to a fault. But she was a firebrand mainly because of me. She was Papa’s enforcer while he was at work.
In my formative years, my folks used to buy me comic books — Popeye, Jughead, Superman, Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger, Looney Tunes, Archie, Sgt Rock. As I moved up in grade school, they bought me Classics Illustrated — Moby Dick, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Three Musketeers, Daniel Boone, The Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, Ivanhoe. As I transitioned to high school, I was hooked to reading. The first set of books I read voraciously was The Hardy Boys. Later, I learned how to borrow books from the library and was constantly on the lookout for stories about World War II on land, in the air, and at sea.
My parents also taught me to be selective about what I’d watch on the screen and boob tube. I watched with them comedies, musical specials, documentaries, newsreels, and dramas with life lessons. I enjoyed immensely I Love Lucy, The Millionaire, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Combat. They were my default programs whenever I found myself alone, always scanning for good things to remember. I learned to discern, read between the lines, understand subtleties These were further reinforced in Literature class as I studied the Humanities. By the time I graduated from college, I felt I had the proper grounding.
That said, my earliest recollection was of Ms. Norma Regidor, a patient lady with a contagious cheerful disposition. The one who made the deepest impression in grade school was the incomparable Bro. Samuel Bueser, FSC, my Grade 7 guru in La Salle Bacolod. He taught us to excel as individuals and play team ball. He mentored us on what was right and wrong; opened our eyes to the world of politics with eyes on John F. Kennedy, America’s first elected Catholic president; and raised our awareness to the risks of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. He went on to become an outstanding three-term mayor of Alaminos, Laguna.
In High School, I witnessed “tutok” (eyes on the ball) and “malasakit” (genuine interest and concern) in my teachers long before I came to know the terms. Mr. Claro Cabalquinto for Math and Science, Mr. Basilio Axinto for History, Mr. Bonaparte Palispis for Pilipino. Bro. Francis Tomulis taught that when times get tough, the tough get going. Bro. Andrew Gonzales taught the skills of speaking, acting and confident performance when thrust on stage without warning. Bro. Armand Garcia taught us innovation, self-reliance and mission-focus. Each one of them instilled in us discipline, service and patriotism for the common good.
In college I became responsible for my attendance and study regimen in the hope that application would become a force of habit later in life. The academic legends of my time were Dean Ariston Estrada, Dra. Emerita Quito, Dr. Bernardo Villegas, Prof. Robert Lane, Atty. Sixto Sandejas, Fr. Georges Piñon, Prof. Salvador Gonzales, Dr. Marcelino Foronda, Hermilando Mandanas, and Deogracias Vistan. The grind was tough but winners never quit as they would say. They encouraged travel as a vital part of continuing education. Learn new cultures, they advised, establish new friendships, enjoy the planet’s beauty, note humanity’s diversity and similarities.
The influence of the Jesuits played an important part in my personal growth and development. Their homilies are a cut above the rest; they’ve been my spiritual guides of choice; and some were good friends of the family. Unforgettable were Fr. Jim Donelan, Fr. Tom Steinbugler, Fr. Vic Helly, Fr. Bill Kreutz, Fr. Aureo Nepomuceno, Fr. Wally Campbell, Fr. Joe O’hare, and Fr. Earl Markey of the Society of Jesus. They reinforced the insight that a life of selfless service is the greatest motivator; that landscape reflects mindscape; that wisdom is the product of bad experience provided it’s learned well; that living, laughing and loving are the keys to building lasting relationships. In the end it’s only the memories that can be brought to the grave and left behind; and that’s how one will be remembered through time.
It’s almost half a century since I graduated in 1970, got married, and began working. Time has flown by so fast that sometimes I feel like asking it, “why the rush, where’s the fire?” After 50 years of accumulated knowledge I’ve learned to understand the saying that “the more you know, the more you don’t know.” Now, somewhere in between, I got to realize the purpose of my existence: To leave behind a world in better condition than the time of our birth. The best I can do now is to mentor the younger generations to continue the journey for a better Philippines, to never give up for the sake of the ones who will come after them.
Rafael M. Alunan III is a former Secretary of Interior and Local Government and chairs the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.