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Philippine Daily Inquirer editor in chief breaking protocol as usual, during the dinner for APEC leaders last November. Photo by Thelma San Juan

Philippine Daily Inquirer editor in chief breaking protocol as usual, during the dinner for APEC leaders last November. Photo by Thelma San Juan

THERE are certain things that only Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc—LJM to Inquirer folk—could say and get away with.

She mixed authority with charm, and levity with dead serious inquisition that could prove lethal to the wits of her subjects, whether they be a President, a communist leader, a colleague, or her staff.

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The Inquirer staff needed to be on their toes when LJM was around, and it didn’t matter who you are. Well, she’s not scary in that “Devil Wears Prada” way. You just had to know what to say, whether she was paying you a compliment, giving you an assignment, or asking you a question.

Because, most of the time, Magsanoc’s mere presence could leave you tongue-tied.

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In 2010, in one of those roundtable interview sessions with political candidates at the Inquirer office, she asked then presidential aspirant Dick Gordon within minutes of his joining the table: “People say you seem to know it all, that you have the solution to everything. What do you say to that?”

As Gordon, in his signature verbal speed, tried to cope with the gravity of the question, the editor pressed on: “What do you say to people saying you are just using the Red Cross?” But he was only after service, the candidate managed to quip.

In 2011, when the National Democratic Front’s leader in exile, Luis Jalandoni, flew in from the Netherlands to visit the Inquirer office, an incredulous Ma’am Letty asked him straightaway: “Why are you still doing this? They say communism is now so passé. Even China is now capitalist.”

During the campaign period in 2013, she keenly observed the interaction between Sen. Loren Legarda and Inquirer columnist Amando Doronila, and noted how quiet the usually feisty Doronila was as he sat beside the senator at the dinner table.

“You are so tame!” she told Doronila, receiving an awkwardly sweet smile from the Inquirer’s top analyst. “Loren, you just shut him down!,” she continued with a laugh that infected the entire room.

Ma’am Letty was probably the only person in the Inquirer who could jump-start questions on the romantic lives of public people, whether they be President Aquino or the very private Grace Padaca.

As for her staff, Ma’am Letty knew when to send that encouraging message or make that call.

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In 2008, five days into the coverage on the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy in Sibuyan Island, Romblon, Ma’am Letty gave me a call, my first ever from her.

“How are you? You’re doing so well!,” she told me, her words readily lifting my spirits. It was my first guerrilla-type coverage—no definite plan, just catching whatever transport was available. With barely any clothes packed, I would just be looking at how each day would go, and uncertain when I’d make it back home.

And then, unexpectedly, she joked: “Do you still have underwear? O, remember ha, you can do Side A, Side B!” We laughed together over the phone. At the time, I could not believe it was the—as in—the editor in chief swapping jokes with me.

Just this August, as I prepared to ask Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno a question during a press conference telecast live nationwide, Ma’am Letty blessed me with an unexpected confidence booster.

“Tars, you look soooooo telegenic! Enjoy your moment in the limelight!” she said, emphasizing her message with several Os. It was then I knew that my lipstick was just right and my hair was in place. It gave me the courage to shoot my question—and to press on again and again—despite the live cameras.

I also recall how, three years ago, in March 2012, I chanced upon her at the Edsa Shrine on Ortigas. She invited me to sit with her and we heard Mass together.

During the service, Fr. Catalino Arevalo, spiritual adviser of the late President Corazon Aquino, delivered a homily that caught Ma’am Letty’s ear.

The priest had said that Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was “worthy of the fires of hell” for berating House prosecutors in the then ongoing impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.

She then whispered to me: “That’s a story. That’s for Page One.”

After the Mass, she introduced me to the priest and gave me the space to do the interview. She later offered me a ride to my next coverage near the church.

The next day, the exclusive story was on the front page and went viral on social media.

But if there’s one memory that will always stand out, it would be that night seven or eight years ago (I just could not remember the exact year), when she asked me to interview Miss Universe 1973 Margie Moran-Floirendo for a feature story.

The beauty queen had brought pizza and pasta for the dinnertime chat, and Ma’am Letty hosted us in her office.

Her office neighbor, the late Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot, was around, and once in a while peered through the open door as our interview went on. Ma’am Letty later noticed him pacing about, carrying a plate. She readily knew what he wanted.

“Wow Gani, how subtle ha?” she told Sir Gani, letting out her signature laugh.

She then invited him in. Sir Gani got his pizza and a beso (kiss) from the beauty queen. Moran later shared the story of how she had rescued Sir Gani in Boracay in 1998, when she spotted him floating face down and motionless in the water mere minutes after he had told her he was just going to wet his feet. Sir Gani did not know how to swim.

Ma’am Letty and Sir Gani must now be laughing together up there.

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