MANILA, Philippines?A rare coming together of University of the Philippines alumni is taking place in cyberspace because of a man who served their alma mater for 41 years, not only cleaning classrooms but also acting as a lifeline to cash-strapped students.
An e-mail written by UP graduate Mike Rivera about now-retired janitor Meliton Zamora, who signed her student loan application as a guarantor in 1993, continues to be forwarded from one inbox to another.
Rivera, 36, had intended it as a cybercall to all those who failed to pay the student loans that her ?hero? had guaranteed.
The e-mail, titled ?Paying it back for Mang Meliton aka Mang Milton,? brought unexpected wide attention to Zamora, who turned out to be fighting for the retirement pay he believes he deserves.
Zamora retired from UP in 2006 at the age of 64 with a check in the amount of 92 centavos to show for the four decades of work.
?Sabi ko, sa kanila na yan. Hindi ko na kukunin (I told them they can have the check. I won?t get it anymore),? Zamora told the Philippine Daily Inquirer last week as he showed a copy of the voucher indicating the amount.
His weathered face lighted by a smile, he seemed amused by the irony of it all. His calloused hands turned the pages of the employment records, including approved sick leave forms, that he was able to save from a fire early in 2000 that gutted the family home in Pook Ricarte on campus.
Zamora received less than P1 as retirement pay not because many of the student loans he had guaranteed were unpaid, as Rivera thought and wrote in her e-mail, but because of 501 sick leave days.
He insists that he did not avail himself of those sick leaves, but the university?s Human Resources Division Office (HRDO) says he did.
Nonetheless, he is thankful for Rivera?s e-mail because he and his family are hopeful that the publicity it has been generating would prompt the HRDO officials to meet with them.
Zamora had been vainly knocking on the doors of the HRDO for the last two years just for an explanation of why the contested 501 days had not been converted to cash, according to his eldest daughter Kit Zamora.
?No one has met with us, or with my father,? she told the Inquirer. ?The HRDO head is at a meeting every time we go to her office. All we want is a clear explanation. If they will be able to show us documents to prove that my father did use all those 501 days of sick leaves, we will accept that his retirement pay for 41 years of service is less than P1.?
Kit Zamora said that in response to a letter her father sent in 2007, UP president Emerlinda Roman said she had directed the HRDO to look into the matter. But nothing came out of it.
Zamora wrote the Civil Service Commission in 2006 for assistance, pointing out that a utility worker like himself would not have received a total of 12 commendations from the state university if he was always on leave. But there was no reply from that agency either.
According to Zamora, he did have some of his sick leaves converted to cash while he was working at UP. But he said he was certain that these were not the contested 501 days.
Singing at work
Kit Zamora said the family wanted the matter finally resolved for their ?Tats.?
She said it had been a tiring and painful battle for money that her father deserved, especially considering his dedication to his job and his devotion to UP faculty, staff and students, particularly at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy.
At the CSSP, housed at the university?s Palma Hall, Zamora was popular as the janitor who sang while he worked (this is, in fact, listed as among the things to know in a CSSP freshman survival kit).
But he was best known as the kind soul who signed student loan applications as a guarantor on the sole basis of trust.
Until he retired, Zamora earned P7,117 a month.
Only one unsettled loan worth P5,000, which he guaranteed in 2003, was deducted from his retirement pay. And friends of this student who had read Rivera?s e-mail promised Zamora that they would find her and urge her to pay up.
The man is grateful for the loan amnesty that UP grants every five years. Otherwise, he would have had to pay for the students? unpaid loans.
Zamora said he could no longer recall how many student loans he had signed as guarantor, which allowed those students to graduate.
(Ironically, only two of his six children were able to acquire college degrees. He could not afford to put them through school.)
By his account, he began guaranteeing student loans in 1974 as his own ?payback? to the kindness shown by a Professor Reyes of the Department of Speech and Drama.
?One day, she praised me for making the classroom very clean. But to me it wasn?t. I knew it was dirty and it was her way of telling me to do my job. The next day and the days after that, I made sure that all the areas I was assigned to were always clean,? he said.
In December of that year, Professor Reyes called Zamora to Room 120, where he found food, clothes and other things, including envelopes with money, piled on a table.
It was all his, he recalled being told. He learned that the professor had asked her students to pitch in for a Christmas gift for him, as a gesture of thanks for keeping their classrooms clean.
From then on, he said, he made sure to show small acts of kindness to others.
But even earlier, during the First Quarter Storm, Zamora proved himself an ally of students.
?I helped them put up the barricades on the streets using benches. I remember [military] helicopters hovering over us and running with the students when Molotov bombs exploded,? he said, chuckling at the memory.
Much later, he would become a walking billboard during the UP Student Council election campaign.
He said Francis Pangilinan (now a senator) and Mike Defensor (formerly President Macapagal-Arroyo?s chief of staff) were among the students who pinned their campaign paraphernalia on him.
In her e-mail, Mike Rivera, now a marketing manager, said she met Zamora in 1993. She was sitting on the steps of Palma Hall, despondent that no one would sign her student loan application.
Wrote Rivera: ?Mang Mel, with a mop in hand, approached me and asked me why I was crying. I told him I had no guarantor for my student loan and will probably not be able to enroll this semester. I had no hopes that he would be able to help me. After all, he was just a janitor. He borrowed my loan application papers and said softly, ?Puwede ako pumirma. Empleyado ako ng UP (I can sign. I?m a UP employee).? He borrowed my pen and signed his name. With his simple act of faith, Mang Mel not only saved my day, he also saved my future.?
Late last year, a friend of Rivera?s who is now a UP professor saw Zamora at the UP Library steps, carrying firewood. (Even after retirement, the former janitor continued to tend to the small vegetable garden beside the library that he started 35 years ago.)
Zamora casually informed Rivera?s friend that he was selling CDs of songs he had recorded in a mall to help make ends meet.
On the first Sunday of the new year, Rivera and her friends visited the small two-story house in Pook Ricarte that Zamora shares with his wife Antonina, their children and grandchildren.
They wanted to thank him for bailing them out in their time of need, but he was not there. That was when Kit Zamora told them of his 92-centavo retirement pay.
Thank you party
On the phone with the Inquirer, Rivera said she wrote the e-mail intending it only for her friends and fellow UP graduates.
She said she never expected it to elicit that much attention, including from a group of UP alumni in the United States who expressed interest in putting up a trust fund for Zamora.
Rivera and Zamora were scheduled to meet last night for the first time since she wrote the e-mail.
The occasion? A benefit party that she and her friends organized at Taumbayan, a new haunt in Kamuning, Quezon City.
Rivera said the party was not so much an ?official fund-raising activity? for Zamora as a chance to thank the man who helped a number of students when they needed it most.
?At times we ask ourselves if there are really good people on earth. Meeting Mang Mel, I?d say yes. There?s still goodness in this world,? Rivera said.