Five years ago, as a freelance writer, I had the rare privilege of being asked to help write a script for a film documentary that would pay tribute to the “Ramon Magsaysay Laureates for Democracy and Good Governance”. I was given several mini biographies to read and among these was of a respected public servant from Bicol, a province in Southern Luzon — no other than the late Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, who was then making a difference in the lives of his constituents in a profound way, as the Mayor of Naga City.
There was little the general public knew about the late Secretary Robredo at that time, but today, the Philippines gives this exceptional Filipino funeral honors fit for a president. A little over a week ago, Robredo and two others perished in a plane crash in the island of Masbate, as he fulfilled both his role as public servant and dedicated father, rushing home from a public speaking engagement to attend the awarding ceremony of his youngest daughter Jillian, who won in a swimming contest of the Palarong Panglungsod (Naga City Games).
“The man felt most comfortable in shorts and rubber slippers. But the funeral rites in his honor were fit for a head of state and would certainly discomfit him,” wrote TJ Burgonio of the Inquirer, on the day Robredo’s body was brought to Malacanang Palace.
During the eulogy at Malacanang, Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras called Robredo’s brand of leadership “Tsinelas Leadership”. The tsinelas (slippers), t-shirt and shorts were Robredo’s signature attire. A getup of someone who had no qualms about getting his hands and feet dirty to fulfill his duties and responsibilities, and who did not set himself apart from the people he served just because he held an office, but always made himself available to lend an ear or a helping hand.
I met the late DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo in 2010 in his hometown in Naga. We were in a mall where our Shell Active Chess competition for the youth was being held. I spotted Sec Jesse donning his signature shirt, shorts and tsinelas. We were having merienda in one of the local fast food chains, where he was waiting for his takeout food for his family. I approached him and told him how I admired him for his great work. He offered a smile and had no hint of pride at all in his demeanor, oblivious to his own his greatness of spirit. He was just a simple man doing his job, and on that weekend, he was an ordinary family man who was enjoying a leisurely weekend, just like everyone else.
He did not seek greatness but greatness sought him
A very simple and unassuming man, Robredo wasn’t one to hog the limelight, but was known to be a quiet and conscientious worker who earned the respect of those around him through the honorable life he lived.
I learned from the people behind the Ramon Magsasay Awards Foundation (RMAF) that it is not like the usual awards where aspiring awardees nominate themselves for the recognition. The Ramon Magsasaysay Awards, often considered as Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize, particularly gives honor to men and women who have achieved distinction in their respective fields and have helped others generously without anticipating public recognition. The RMAF keeps their eyes and ears open, following the trail of greatness left by people who follow the example of former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, a man who exemplified integrity in government, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. Without their knowing, the candidates for the Ramon Magsaysay awards are carefully studied and observed by the RMAF through a rigorous research and verifying process on the candidates’ quality of character and their genuine transformational contributions to society. To be a laureate of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards is even a higher distinction, and Jesse Robredo was among those whose lives stood out among the rest, and this we recognize today.
HIGHEST HONOR. On behalf of her late husband, Leni Robredo receives from President Aquino the Philippine Legion of Honor, the highest award that can be given by the President without Congressional approval (Photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau). In his eulogy, President Aquino paid tribute to his Cabinet member, comrade in advocacy and good friend. Aquino said, “Jesse was truly a model public servant: focused on others and ready to sacrifice. Among the many I have talked to, he is the person who hates flattery. In Jesse, what you see is what you get.” … “He was not content with the status quo; he showed in Naga that change is possible. He showed that the prevailing system can be overcome, that we can defeat politicians who have long ruled and used their position for their personal interest.” … “He showed you can succeed in politics without being a traditional politician.” … “He has accomplished his mission in this world.” … “So let’s not cry. Instead, let us be grateful. In the short time he was here in this world, we were blessed with the opportunity to be with Jesse Manalastas Robredo.” (Excerpts from President Aquino’s eulogy delivered after the State Funeral Mass for Robredo)
Everyone a Robredo
Indeed, when you are confronted by such magnanimity of spirit, you cannot help but be uplifted and edified. I remember that as I immersed myself in Jesse Robredo’s life story to be able to write the script I was assigned to do, it was as if my own spirit rose, inspired to follow his example and be a better Filipino, a better human being. I guess you can say that of people like Robredo, who, despite their attempts to remain low key and unnoticed, cannot let their greatness of spirit be contained for very long. Like a sweet perfume, a pure soul’s essence will escape and pretty soon, its pleasant smell is bound to be noticed. As we, and even people from other parts of the world, watch the nation’s tribute to the late Jesse Robredo and listen to the countless anecdotes of the many ways he has touched people lives, we feel a sense of loss but also a sense of continuance for the good work he has sown.
As Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina put it in his column in Manila Standard, “Everyone a Robredo”:
“The Persian poet Rumi wrote, ‘Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.’ In losing Jesse Robredo we have lost friend and champion, but we should not lose faith, hope, and love in our country and our fellow human being that he had. As many testimonials have offered, the best way to celebrate his life is to emulate his life, and share it with others. To become like him, not just in demanding good governance, but in working towards it: every man and woman a Robredo, whatever our station in life. In memory of a good friend, perhaps it’s important to remind ourselves that we are not powerless, that we have the resources to make good governance possible. Robredo has done so for Naga and the DILG—why can’t others both in and out of government do so for our own cities, for our country? Why can’t Naga’s and Robredo’s DILG story, and his story, be our country’s story as well?
Far better than to mourn death is to celebrate life that was lived. This should now be the rallying cry we offer to the memory of such an amazing life.”
A life that did not fear hardships, inconvenience and even death
Atty. Leni Robredo’s quiet dignity at this time of mourning for the death of her beloved husband is something admirable. Her grace in embracing her husband’s fate with peaceful joy is imminent in her words, when she said that Jesse lived a full live and she knew in her heart that he was more than ready to reunite with his Creator.
Only an equally honorable woman could help a man like Jesse Robredo come to full bloom. She is, in every way, a match for this great man. As they say, behind every great man is a great woman (and in Secretary Robredo’s case, four women). We thank Atty. Lenny and their three daughters for generously sharing their family’s treasure with the Filipino people.
The Robredo family. The late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, his wife Atty. Leni and their three daughters Patricia, Aika and Jillian. Robredo’s wife says her husband always made time for family. Aika’s description of her dad when he was still Mayor of Naga aptly describes his dedication as a husband and father: “He eats lunch and dinner with us seven days a week, even if it means he has to take two or three more meals because he has to attend a constituent’s wedding or birthday reception. No occasion is too trivial for him. He is there for us not only during PTA meetings or piano or ballet recitals, but even when my math homework gets a little too difficult.”
Jesse Robredo’s life was utterly spent in public service. He was an epitome of the Lord’s servant-leadership. Below are just some of the kind words of remembrance I have heard these past days recounting the life of the well-loved Jesse Robredo:
- His staff at the DILG would always come to the office finding Secretary Robredo had already an earlier start at work
- Despite his position, he would stand in line at the elevator, and even let others go ahead or take the stairs if the elevator was already full
- He was one to always volunteer to do the most difficult and daunting tasks in government, and his fellow Cabinet Secretaries would often hear Jesse utter the words, “Sige na, sige na, ako na” (Let it be me). He would also say to his staff and co-workers, “I will not ask of you what I am not willing to do myself”
- Jesse would rather bite his tongue rather than uncharitably lash out when he was angry
- He was always cheerful, never hot-headed, a simple and unassuming man. He was more concerned with authenticity – with being true to himself, than winning the praise of others
- He was always the first to clear the mud after a flood, and the first to champion the battle cry of a worthy cause
One of the best descriptions of Jesse Robredo was written by his own daughter Aika, who won the grand prize some years back as a 15-year old high school student for the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Student Essay Competition, where she wrote about her father (excerpt of the winning essay from the RMAF):
“Now that I am a little older, sometimes people would come up to me to tell me what great things my father has done for them. I feel proud. But what puts a smile in my heart is knowing that he also did small things for some people – things like bringing back a wayward son to his distraught mother, helping a male employee patch things up with his wife, or playing basketball on a street corner with the neighborhood kids. Such things may appear inconsequential, but they have brought great joy to others and made them feel important.” (Words from Aika Robredo, eldest daughter of the late Secretary Jesse Robredo)
“The immensity of the public response to his death and the collective grief being displayed give us comfort that his efforts have made their mark. We did not expect this kind of reaction. I am sure Jess did not expect this either,” said Leni Robredo, wife of the late Jesse Robredo. She said that her husband felt that the greatest gift he could give his children was a good name. “In death, he gave my children that gift and the best way we can all honor him is to guard that name and make him proud,” she said (Left photo by Philippine Star, Right photo by Malacanang Photo Bureau).
As my own gesture of gratitude to this wonderful soul, I hope to add to the online tribute to Jesse Robredo by sharing excerpts from the script I drafted in 2007 in honor of the Ramon Magsaysay Laureates for Democracy and Good Governance:
Guardians of Democracy … Models of Good Governance … Great Men and Women of Asia.
“LEGACY OF GREATNESS: The Ramon Magsaysay Laureates for Democracy and Good Governance”
In the Philippines, a young, non-traditional politician was creating an impact with his progressive, innovative, clean and efficient mode of governance …
In a country where democracy was constantly being undermined by the corruption and incompetence of its leaders, Jesse Manalastas Robredo, Mayor of the City of Naga, demonstrated that democratic government can be good government …
Robredo abandoned a lucrative corporate career to heed the call of public service at the age of twenty-nine …
As Mayor, he was faced with a formidable task … assuming the burdens of a third-class city with a huge budget deficit …
Robredo was determined to bring progress to Naga and enlivened everyone with his vision for the City…
More a manager than a politician, Robredo ran his city as if it were a corporation … And his decisive management style proved effective …
Armed with an MBA and strong corporate background, Robredo applied business techniques to raise performance, productivity and morale among city employees …
He introduced a merit-based system of hiring and promotion and reorganized city employees on the basis of aptitude and competence …
He freed the City from the grip of vices and fostered a culture of excellence among his constituents …
The young mayor gained the respect of his people for his moral authority and leadership by example …
Robredo spent the City’s funds wisely, prioritizing the provision of basic services, employing creative yet practical solutions to the City’s nagging problems such as traffic and squatting, minimizing graft and corruption and enlisting the partnership of NGOs and the urban poor to reach the goals of progress …
Robredo’s enduring legacy to the cause of local autonomy is his “empowerment ordinance of Naga City”, which institutionalized the participation of NGOs and People’s Organizations in the act of governance …
JESSE ROBREDO: “Our people have proven that given the opportunity, we can rise above our parochial interests in the pursuit of a common good. Given a choice, we will opt for good government despite the attendant obligation it requires.”
Under Mayor Robredo’s leadership, Naga experienced nothing less than a renaissance in ten years, catapulting it from a third-class city to a first-class, model city, with its people enjoying the fruits of prosperity …
JESSE ROBREDO: “Indeed, yielding power to the people is perhaps my greatest achievement as City Mayor. And the greatest lesson I have learned is that public servants should feel obliged to heed the people’s will always. Public servants are servant leaders. Their mission is ‘to serve and not to be served’.”
The Ramon Magsaysay Laureates have created a blueprint of best practices in democracy and governance for people all over the world …
They are living examples of exceptional service …
Outstanding individuals who manifested magnanimity of spirit, in keeping with the ideals of the late, great Asian leader Ramon Magsaysay …
May their legacy of greatness live on. ~ [End of script excerpt] ~
Once again, Maraming Salamat, Secretary Jesse Robredo, for inspiring us with the story of your life. Thank you for showing us how to live a life of purpose and meaning.
Congratulations for a life well-lived. You have earned our applause and the applause of heaven.
You have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. We bid you farewell as you enter the joy of your Creator in heaven.
The Shell Communications Team with the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo. Photo taken in Naga City, Robredo’s hometown, in 2010.