At a dinner to commemorate the memory of late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo on Thursday, President Benigno Aquino III said he could not stop looking at Jesse’s smiling face on the tarpaulin onstage.
The picture captured so well Jesse’s face when he was alive and very happy, he said.
Mr. Aquino said the happy countenance portrayed on the tarpaulin was the very same grin that Jesse gave him when he teased him for wolfing down the chocolates served at one of their group meetings.
In remembering a friend and a colleague who had died tragically at the prime of his life when he was doing so much for the people, Mr. Aquino said he wanted to make sure that everyone would hold on to their fond memories of Jesse, just as he does.
The President and Jesse’s widow, Leni, now a Camarines Sur district representative, led family and friends in looking back to the times they spent with Jesse and recounting how he had touched their lives.
Nostalgia and tears
There was much wistful yearning and tears for the much-loved Cabinet secretary at the commemorative dinner held on the fifth anniversary of Kaya Natin Movement, a nongovernment organization promoting ethical government leadership which the late Robredo had helped organize.
The Robredos’ daughters, Aika, Patricia and Jillian, attended the dinner as did their father’s colleagues in government and the people he had helped, like those from the urban poor and the education sectors.
Jesse died on Aug. 18 last year in a plane crash in Masbate. He was on his way to Naga City to visit his family after attending an official engagement in Cebu province. The plane’s pilot and copilot also perished in the crash. Only Jesse’s aide survived.
“Let us admit we are advocates of so many causes. We wish for things to be this way or that. But Jesse, he did all of those already. If you have any doubts that we can do it, he did it. Those who say that it is impossible to do, Jesse did it,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President said Jesse was one public servant who was always honest with the people he dealt with, one who did not give false hopes to others. He was also a leader who knew how to listen to others, he said.
In his speech, Mr. Aquino said Jesse had done a lot for Naga and for the country, and it was but proper that government officials today build on his legacy.
“Could we ask more from Jesse in terms of goodness, legacy and inspiration? It would be really selfish of us to ask for more,” Mr. Aquino said.
“Isn’t it time that we took action too? If one man, Jesse Robredo, has changed our lives because of his determination to move forward despite the odds, isn’t it our duty to embrace and carry on what he has started? We know this is Jesse’s dream, and it’s clear to us, based on the progress of the country and on the faces of our partners in transformation, we have not failed and we will not fail Jesse,” he said.
Mr. Aquino said that relocating more than 500,000 families of informal settlers in the capital seemed daunting, but Jesse’s example inspired him to plod on.
“The issue of informal settlers appears to be an enormous problem; 1.4 million families nationwide, 560,000 families in the NCR (National Capital Region) alone. And then the costs of in-city or near-city relocation or returning them to the provinces,” he said.
But Jesse’s success in relocating informal settlers in Naga City, where he served with distinction as mayor for 19 years, and looking after the settlers’ children inspired him to do the same for the metropolis and the rest of the country, the President said.
He said Jesse accomplished even more in rooting out illegal gambling in Naga, and did just as well in other areas, despite the flurry of charges filed against him by the Arroyo administration, Mr. Aquino added.
“We’re advocates of many causes, and we tend to say: ‘This is how to do it,’ ‘that’s the way to do it.’ But Jesse, without further ado, just did it. If we have doubts that we can do it, well, he did it, and turned the impossible into reality,” he told the audience that included Cabinet officials, legislators and urban poor leaders who had worked with Jesse.
The President last week directed Jesse’s successor, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, to “immediately spearhead” the transfer of informal-settler families living precariously near estuaries, creeks and rivers.
Roxas kicked off the relocation of hundreds of families from the San Juan River area in San Juan City to new homes in San Jose del Monte in Bulacan province.
They were the initial batch of the 19,440 families that the government was targeting to move from eight major waterways traversing the metropolitan capital of 13 million people by the end of the year.
Jesse’s friends—Filomena Cinco, president of Nagkakaisang Mamamayan ng Legarda, Dr. Eddie Dorotan, executive director of Galing Pook Foundation, and Dr. Milwida Guevara, president of Synergeia Foundation—shared their own memories of Jesse.
Former Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who now chairs Kaya Natin, and Roxas also shared some fond recollections of Jesse.
Jesse’s widow, Leni, said Kaya Natin’s fifth anniversary that night was a gathering of her husband’s “dearest friends who continue to watch over us.” It was an assurance to her husband, she said.
She said her husband never pressured her to join politics and allowed her to pursue her own dreams.
Leni said that when her husband was appointed to the Cabinet, she worried for him as he was not a very sociable person. She said she always reminded their two eldest daughters who were studying in Manila not to go out so much at night so their father would have company at home.
She said she would always be thankful to all of her husband’s friends in the government, especially the President.
“The problem now is everyone thinks with just one whisper [to the President], the wish will be granted,” she said, eliciting laughter.
In his own remarks, the President told Leni: “You can also do it by text.”
Known for his comic timing, the President made people laugh with his anecdotes about Jesse, doing much to lighten the somber mood of many in the audience.
He recalled how Jesse was a member of AIM, or the “Ayaw Iwanan ang Mic (unwilling to give up the microphone)” group in the Cabinet when they entertained themselves by singing their hearts out.
Mr. Aquino vividly recalled the anxious moments a year ago when the light plane flying Jesse from Cebu City to Naga City went missing on the afternoon of Aug. 18 until his decomposing body was found in the waters off Masbate a few days later.
He said the tough part was breaking the tragic news to Jesse’s wife and daughters. As he was told that Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman was close to the family, he told Soliman, “You’re volunteering to talk to Leni.”
But the most difficult part of all was witnessing Jesse’s body being taken out of the body bag at the funeral parlor, Mr. Aquino said. He was grateful when Soliman sidled up to him, “just in case I collapsed.” It was only some days later that Soliman told the President that she had gone to him because she was also afraid she would collapse.
Actually, it was Leni and her daughters who gave him and the Cabinet the strength, not the other way around, the President admitted.
“To end, when we think that we were given the chance to be with someone like Jesse Robredo we remember how much God loves us. In the hardest of times, he sends us one who will help us, guide us and support us. Sometimes, that person takes the lead in the path we want to take,” Mr. Aquino said.
“Really at the end of our days, we want to say we lived a meaningful life. Undoubtedly, Jesse did it. He did it and there is no reason why we can’t also aspire and achieve a meaningful life in the service of others,” the President said.