Dean Billy

It was “Sir Billy” that people used in their eulogies to refer to National Artist Napoleon Abueva, who passed away last month, and for whom a tribute was organized at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

At the tribute, I could tell that the feelings people had for “Sir Billy” were really for “Dean Billy,” marked by deep respect and love. His being dean of the College of Fine Arts was clearly a high point in his career, and life.

I did not know him personally but, as chancellor, I had to deliver one of the opening tributes. So what I did was to raise a UP Diliman publication, Pasyalan, which is a guide to our campus’ most well-known works of public art. My copy had multicolored flags on several pages featuring Abueva’s works, the flags meant to underscore his ubiquitous presence in Diliman.

I read out the names and thought I’d share them with readers who might want to do a more focused walking (or jogging) tour on campus.

An Abueva tour of Diliman

You’d start with the two massive installations at the University Avenue entrance to the campus: “Tribute to Higher Education” (sadly, the focus of a longstanding battle with vandalism) and “University Gateway.” University Avenue leads to Quezon Hall and Guillermo Tolentino’s famous Oblation but further on, right before the Lagoon, is “Three Women Sewing a Flag” to honor the women who sewed the Philippine flag used to declare Philippine independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.

Inside the campus, a short distance from Vargas Museum is the intriguing “Fredesvinda/The Asean Boat No. 2,” originally intended to be a place for people to hang out but the area is swampy, appropriate for a boat sculpture but not quite a tambayan.

Move on further down the Academic Oval and you will see “Siyam na Diwata ng Sining,” the nine muses of the arts, created for the College of Arts and Letters’ Faculty Center, which burned down two years ago. A CAL building at the back of that Center has still another Abueva sculpture, of a lone woman, “Magdangal.”

Go down the length of University Avenue, past Vinzons Hall, to the front of the Virata School of Business and you will find “The Spirit of Business” that looks like an antiaircraft missile but is meant to show the dynamic nature of entrepreneurship and technology.

There’s a certain asymmetry with the distribution of Abueva’s works in Diliman, most of them concentrated in the campus’ southern side. The northern side has just one Abueva sculpture, which I consider to be one of his best but which many people don’t realize as an Abueva masterpiece.

The tribute was held in the Catholic Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, so all I had to do was point up to the Crucifix—actually two crucifixes, one of the dead and the other of the resurrected Christ.

What would UP Diliman be like, I wondered aloud, without the Abueva pieces?

And what would the country’s public landscapes be like without other Abueva sculptures that have become iconic—such as “Transfiguration” in Eternal Gardens, or “Sunburst” at Manila Peninsula?

Abueva was known to have made smaller pieces as gifts to friends. Writer Gilda Cordero Fernando once got a wooden slipper for her pond, supposedly one of the slippers that Jose Rizal, then a young boy, tossed into Laguna de Bay. The story is that Rizal was on a boat and one of his slippers fell off. He then threw out the other slipper and, when asked why he did that, explained that one slipper would be useless so he was hoping someone would fish out the two slippers he had bequeathed to the Laguna de Bay.

You’ll have to ask Gilda why only one slipper for the pond in her garden, but it is a delightful example of the serious yet playful moods of Sir Billy. The best testament to this playful artistry is another Abueva piece, in UP Los Baños, called “Pegaraw”—yes, a tamaraw with wings like the Pegasus. It was sculpted in response to then President Fidel V. Ramos’ call to Filipinos to face the challenges of the new millennium.

The tamaraw is endemic only to the Philippines; the Pegasus has hooves that elicit bursts of water whenever these struck ground—springs that would inspire artists.

At the tribute, I heard speaker after speaker—mostly Abueva’s former students and a few of his contemporaries, including artist Araceli Limcaco Dans—talking about a man who cared for people in many ways, from finding scholarships for students to handing out roses to the women in his college. Dans recalled, too, how Abueva showed up at the opening of an exhibit of her daughter’s works with a welcome banner he had prepared. Not only did he take the trouble of making the banner, he also took it upon himself to put it up.

Deans’ affirmation

The last two weeks I’ve had to officiate at the affirmation of three new deans in UP Diliman. The rite is meant to install a new dean, with fellow faculty, students, staff, as well as friends and family, as witnesses. The new dean presents a program for the future, and the ones who will help in achieving that vision.

Sitting through the last three affirmation rites, and the tribute to Dean Billy, made me think about what it takes to be a dean. It’s a tough job, and I console struggling deans with the joke that they don’t have to go through purgatory (“derecho na sa langit”) if they finish a term.

Our deans in UP Diliman have it particularly tough, handling colleges with student populations that can go into the thousands. Deans are frontline workers, ending up as surrogate parents, counselors (including marriage counseling), mediators (yes, among quarrelling faculty and staff), carpenters, electricians, interior decorators, gardeners, drivers, garbage collectors… The list goes on and on.

On top of it all, you’re expected to excel as an academic, providing wise guidance for all the subjects offered in your unit and doing some research, and writing.

Listening to the testimonials for Dean Billy, I could tell he was that all-around man. Most importantly, though, he had one particular skill that not all deans have. It’s not a gift, but something you develop by listening to and watching people, and empathizing.

Let me elaborate. The Chinese use “gongxi” for new year greetings, as well as to congratulate people for all kinds of occasions, including becoming a dean. “Gongxi” actually means “wishing you happiness,” and I thought of the wisdom of the greeting. A new year alone, or becoming dean, does not automatically bring happiness. Neither will a “gongxi” greeting automatically guarantee that happiness. You have to be like the Pegasus, or the “Pegaraw,” creating the conditions for happiness like the spring that bursts from a Pegasus’ hoof.

Not a gift, but something you develop. A good—no, a great—dean, like Sir Billy, brings happiness and joy.