Death of the ‘newsroom mangler’
Dandansoy, I must depart for Payaw is calling my heart. Should you happen someday to miss me, just look out to Payaw where I’ll be.”
That’s a version of a Visayan folk song taught to journalist Rustico “Rustie” Otico when he was a child learning English in Antique. He texted it to me when he was still strong enough to hold a cell phone from his retirement home in Mojon, Belison, Antique.
The lyrics are touching; they sound like he is bidding farewell (he died on Feb. 7 at the age of 79 from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
People who’ve worked, drank, or argued about sports with Rustie, a legend in the newsrooms of a number of dailies, the Inquirer included, little knew that he had an eclectic music library. From there he would draw lyrics suitable to welcome changes of the season.
On the first of May, he texted: “Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May. The lovely month when everyone goes blissfully a-stray!…Ay! Nagka-senior moment, can no longer remember the rest of ‘Camelot’ song. Happy labor day na lang!”
When the first ’ber month arrived, his lengthy text contained the lyrics of “Autumn Leaves” with this information: “English version by Johnny Mercer adapted from the French original ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ by Jacques Prevert—my first album by Barbra Streisand which introduced me to French folk songs.”
Or he would send a quote of the day like “There’s drama in everything if it is done right. Even a pancake.” He added that the “Readers Digest” attributed this to Julia Child.
A thorough newsman, he was conscious of such trade practices as proper attribution. His messages were always properly punctuated to the point of being prim and proper. Rarely did he resort to spelling shortcuts.
Decades of being the unheralded copy editor did that to him until one year, he and Enrique P. Romualdez of Malaya were singled out by the editors and managing editors of the country’s leading newspapers for excellence in journalism. The Editors’ Choice was the award’s name.
In his response, Rustie described the duties of a “newsroom mangler” (his term for copy editor): “one who edits, polishes or rewrites a story for clarity, coherence, precision (of language), accuracy (of facts), balance, and fairness.”
Because copy editors’ work is done behind the scenes, he noted how “rarely do their names appear in the newspapers, for often they have no time to write their own stories.”
My husband Rolly Fernandez has a wealth of behind-the-scenes stories at the news desk with Rustie. He recruited the older newsman from a rival paper. On his first day of work on July 16, 1990, the magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit Baguio and other parts of Northern Luzon. Rustie wrapped up the early and the city editions while Rolly did the layout. They were done by 2:30 a.m.
While eating a late dinner at a 24-hour bulalohan on Kalentong in Mandaluyong, Rustie deadpanned, “Mr. Fernandez, I didn’t know you’d give me an earthshaking welcome!”
The two would carry on as comrades in work in other newspapers and as drinking buddies at the National Press Club where Rustie gained notoriety for ordering a case of beer at 7 a.m. after an all-night binge and asking that the crowns of the beer bottles be removed.
At the now defunct Pook Luntian in Quezon City, Rustie would request his favorite songs from then unknown folk singer Noel Cabangon, who always obliged him.
He was also a fan of pianist Cecile Licad whose concerts he’d watch from the farthest balcony seat of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In 2012 came the chance to watch her up close, courtesy of another drinking partner, Pablo Tariman, at Covelandia Resort in Cavite before the concert hall burst into flames. Writer Corito Llamas immediately sat Rustie on the front row. So moved was he by the experience that soon he was silently weeping.
At the height of Typhoon “Santi,” he texted the English lyrics of the folk air “Lulay” that he found from “Broken Guitar.” In these I heard the country boy in Rustie speaking about his beloved home: “I was poorly born on the top of the mountain, caressed by the motherly love of the thunder, playing with the wonderful fire of the lightning, thrilling, thrilling kiss of cloud is always mine.”
Elizabeth Lolarga (babethlolarga@ gmail.com) is a freelance writer.
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