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UP, my heartland

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(Editor’s Note: A University of the Philippines golden jubilarian recalls his happy days at the national university. This year’s UP Jubilarians are from Classes 1953, 1963, 1973 and 1988. The UP General Alumni-Faculty Homecoming and Reunion will be held on June 22 at Ang Bahay ng Alumni, UP Diliman campus, Quezon City.)

The University of the Philippines (UP) is my heartland, truly Alma Mater, for with great mentors she nurtured my youthful mind and in her I found my lifework—teaching and research and writing.

In 1952, UP president Vidal A. Tan asked my father, Antonio M. Abad, to organize the Department of Spanish at  UP Diliman. This was how our family came to live in Area 1 on the Diliman campus—first, at T-4, a sawali cottage near St. Cecilia’s Hall (a women’s dormitory) and, later, at T-1004, a short walk  from the UP Infirmary.

T meant temporary. Those cottages were once soldiers’ quarters from  Liberation days. At T-4, I used to hear every morning a medley of solfeggios from music majors with Jovita Fuentes and, sometimes, someone playing the piano and singing “When You Are in Love” and “It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”

My brother Tony and I transferred from Far Eastern University, where my father had taught with professor Vidal Tan, to UP High, which was then at the College of Education building.

Shy and reclusive, I would often just read a book somewhere on campus, under a tree or in the empty grandstand at the parade ground. In the usual Christmas exchange of gifts, I received from a girl, who signed her name “Cremhilda” in the shape of  an ice cream cone, “A Pocket Book of Robert Frost’s Poems,” selected with commentary by Louis Untermeyer.

Frost-y ambition

Upon graduation in 1954, I went to UP Los Baños, imagining I would become a farmer-poet like Frost. There, mistaking a restlessness of spirit for freedom, I learned to drink Manila Rum, smoked Old Gold, went with friends to what passed for cabarets and joined the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity.

My closest friends were young writers and, together, we worked for the college paper, Green and Gold—Deomund Aglibut, a brilliant scholar in sugar technology; Godehardo Calleja from Bicol, who had read Graham Greene, and Nelson Lacambra whose sister, Tita (Lacambra Ayala), I admired and wanted in vain to meet.

But when in Poultry I, following an exercise in caponizing, the young rooster I gripped breathed its last as I took out more than its little endowment, I realized I had made the wrong choice.

Again, imagining that I might follow Gerard Manley Hopkins, I entered the Jesuit Order in 1956. That didn’t work out either, although I took from that brief sojourn with the good fathers a discipline of mind and hardihood of faith that have since sustained me.

It became very clear to me then that my lifework would be, as it was for my father, the writing life.

My restless quest finally ended in 1959. I took up English at the College of Liberal Arts, UP Diliman, and have since been faithful to the Muse in my fashion. I also joined the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) where the camaraderie in varied volunteer work fostered lifelong friendships—even unto marriage.

Fathers and exemplars

On a late afternoon when it would be cool, I would walk over to NVM Gonzalez’s cottage, a few yards away from T-1004, or to Franz Arcellana’s in Area 17 on the other side of the campus. It was enough for me that they welcomed drafts of my stories and poems and encouraged me to persevere in that solitary occupation called writing. They are my fathers “in my craft or sullen art” and, what is more, they are for me exemplars of men who lived their faith without fanfare.

I remember with a strange ache of longing that, in my youth, the UP Diliman campus was a peaceful community, seemingly a mirror-image of Arcady [in literature, a place of pastoral innocence and contentment]. On any day, one might sight sheep, goats or cows grazing in the open field and cogon.

There were very few squatters and, on the knoll just across from the present National Institute for Science and Mathematics  Education Development, there was even a golf course on campus. One could walk secure in the long shadows of acacia trees at dusk and observe at leisure the twittering flight of birds and, at nightfall, the moon like a serene banca of light in the sky and the glimmer of fireflies amid the lush and hush of vegetation.

During my undergraduate years there was a group of young writers, the Banana Club —among them, Erwin Castillo, Perfecto Tera and Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez—whose muse was Virgie Moreno; their special haunt was Virgie’s Music Room in the Main Library.

But, like Jun Lansang Jr. or Atariq, I was not a joiner. In 1962, I enrolled in the only class Jose Garcia Villa ever taught at UP—my first literary workshop. Villa was a strange and possessed being who asked us all if we were virgins and insisted that we “clean our lines.”

Atariq, Jolico Cuadra  and Ernesto Manalo would sometimes join Villa’s class, and sometimes we would meet in Little Quiapo, our pubescent verses excoriated over halo-halo especial.

How well I remember the fire trees all in bloom, our poetic detritus adrift in the sunset sky and our youthful dejection there in that commercial hub on campus on exactly that tract of earth where later would rise the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice.

Villa was a high grader but we were all hung like Cinna for our verses. You cannot imagine my lunar bliss when, after that semester, Villa told me that my poem, “To Caliban,” would be included in his Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry. My first anthologized poem ever!

I gratefully remember, too, my teachers in the English department, foremost among them a great teacher of literature, professor Concepcion D. Dadufalza. Indeed, their commitment to teaching and scholarship drew me to join them as assistant instructor right after graduation in October 1963. The chair then was

Dr. Felixberto Santa Maria.

In 1965, on recommendation of  the chair, Dr. Dionisia Rola, I obtained a Rockefeller Fellowship for graduate studies at the University of Chicago where I joined my dear teacher-friends Ma. Lourdes Arvisu and Oscar Alfonso who were by then  finishing their dissertations.

Since 1952, I have never left UP, but only when I look back do I see clearly that even then a path, though not straight nor without humor, had been cleared for me: My lifework was to be in UP.

I recall telling professor Martin Gregorio, when I sought his assistance to see me through the retirement processing of papers, “Our university has treated me excellently well, perhaps more than I truly deserve.” Perhaps it is only a little hedge—one looks over it.


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Tags: gemino h. abad , golden jubilarians , Learning , University of the Philippines , UP general alumni-faculty homecoming and reunion




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