He just wanted to be called JesseBy Jonas Cabiles Soltes
Inquirer Southern Luzon
Jesse Robredo was elected mayor of Naga City in 1989, when its thoroughfares were not yet paved and cogon grasses grew tall near the City Hall compound where we used to live in a shack on land owned by my granduncle.
My family and I had to leave our hometown in Tinambac, 55 kilometers away, after my father, a barangay captain, was almost killed by communist rebels on suspicion of being a military collaborator, if not for the pleadings of my mother, a school teacher.
Having to live in Naga, I thus have known Robredo for almost all my life.
In 2006, I applied for work at the public library, even on a job-order basis. But Robredo turned down my application, saying City Hall already had too many employees.
When I was hired as a correspondent for Bicol Mail, I was asked by our publisher, Nilo Aureus, to cover City Hall. It was then that I had the chance to interview Robredo and engage him in almost weekly conversation. I also observed how simple he was.
Robredo would always welcome people who needed to talk to him, even without prior appointment.
In 2008, I was invited by the Naga Visitor’s Center to work for the mayor’s office as editor of its monthly newsletter, City Hall Matters. Part of the job was to write speeches for Robredo—when needed.
I wrote the first speech for him during an event of the Philippine Councilors League in the city in 2008, which was also attended by then Sen. Benigno Simeon Aquino III. Although known to do ad libs, Robredo read the speech. I was very happy, and for that, he gave me P300 as honorarium.
When I joined the Inquirer’s Southern Luzon Bureau, I resigned from my job at City Hall. I told Robredo about it and he let me go, saying I should go wherever I would do well. That was my first goodbye to him.
In 2010, when Aquino was running for President, I went with Robredo to Masbate where the candidate would do a sortie. It was during our return trip to Naga in a fast craft when we discussed the possibility of working for the government again should Aquino get elected.
In August 2010, I told the Inquirer that I could no longer produce stories for the newspaper because I would be joining Robredo as a member of his staff. Robredo was appointed interior secretary by President Aquino.
At first, Robredo wanted me to work as an in-house investigative reporter at the Internal Affairs Service of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). Then the Luneta hostage-taking took place and Robredo needed someone to take care of matters that concern the media. I was designated communications officer.
It was a baptism of fire; I had no experience working as a crisis communicator, but I had to do my job. It was a tiring moment for Robredo, too. Sometimes, he would return to the office with hair disheveled. Or he would just stay quiet and kept his cool while members of his staff were rattled by the turn of events.
Sometimes, he would just join us while watching TV, looking at himself dodge calls for resignation. He did not quit, though, despite moments of seeming surrender. He would tell us that if he gave up, all those who had placed their hopes on him would be frustrated.
Robredo was a workaholic. He would go to the office as early as 7:30 a.m., mindless of other people inside the rickety elevator of the DILG offices at Francisco Gold Condominium II.
It was hard to please him; he wanted everything simple but perfect. An ordinary press statement would take hours of revising before it could be released. One poster never saw print because he did not like its design and content.
Robredo did not treat positions in the hierarchy differently. He would call anyone who, he believed, could deliver the job.
How to be mad
He was angry when he would start biting his fingers and hands, and very angry when the bites would reach the forearms.
But he was not the kind of boss who would scold someone in public. He would do so privately through his classic line: “Kung ako lang sa imu” (if I were you).
Robredo has not changed his office ways since his days as a mayor. Anyone could go in and go out. He seldom had closed-door meetings.
Before signing a document, he would make sure he had read everything. He would never sign one without questioning its propriety. He had no backlogs because he would take everything home even on weekdays.
He did not want his security aides to bully anyone or else be reprimanded.
Robredo read newspapers every day. After scanning the headlines, he would turn to the sports section—he loved to play basketball.
Robredo was known to take on-flight risks squarely.
Almost two years ago, he and I, and two of his security aides were aboard a small plane when, suddenly, it encountered air turbulence. “Mabuhay daw kita igdi, Jonas? (Can we survive this, Jonas?)” Yes, we did reach Masbate safely.
After Supertyphoon “Juan” lashed Isabela in 2010, Robredo and I were on a police helicopter and about to fly over the Caraballo Mountains on our way to the province from Manila. When I asked, “Sir Jess, mabalyo kita d’yan? (Sir Jess, are we crossing there?) He just said yes and smirked.
On a flight back to Manila from Tuguegarao City in Cagayan, our borrowed private jet had to rise above the clouds due to overcast skies. I was fearing for my life while the secretary was playing Text Twist on his iPad.
Robredo was not afraid of helicopters. He would ride anything to reach his destination—to the chagrin of his security aides.
Once he asked a pilot to go to a mining site in Masbate, which was not in his itinerary. We met a waterspout on our way back to Naga during that time.
But Robredo loved his family so much. He once told me that his family was so important that it would affect his work if something bad or unfavorable would happen to any of his three daughters.
He was a slave driver in a positive sense. He would make people work hard but bring out the best in them. Getting his seal of approval was a rare but desirable thing.
He would always meet his staff and say the things he had already told them many times.
He seemed to always have the best idea. When someone, including those in his staff, had a good idea, he would have a better one. But he took time to listen. In fact, I would always send text messages to him when I disapproved of his decisions, but he would always reply politely.
Robredo was proud of his people; he would often boast about their individual achievements and skills.
He would treat them as a second family. On our trip to Davao, he comforted me when I told him that my father lost in his bid to become barangay captain of our village.
He would let me take charge of his cell phones whenever he was busy. I would read the messages and answer calls, and never had suspicions that these were coming from bad people.
Robredo was a presence in the office. He was authoritative yet not scary. He never imposed his presence or position. In fact, he wanted everyone to just call him Jesse.
He was known as kuripot or frugal. But he would easily take money from his own pocket when we visited families of slain policemen, on top of what was provided by the office. He never failed to retell how he pitied the families.
When I resigned from my job as communications officer in May last year to return to journalism and pursue my law studies, Robredo readily accepted my decision, but not without telling me to be fair all the time, whatever path I take. He even said I could write negative things about him.
I wanted to embrace him for telling me that. He was the best second father I ever had.
When I learned that his plane crashed in Masbate on Saturday, I cried. But after a few minutes, I began doing my job because I know that Robredo would always want people to do their best even in the most impossible situations.
(Before rejoining the Inquirer last year, the author worked for Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo for 10 months as communications officer.—Ed.)