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Howard Dee, servant and steward

In this age of instant stars and dazzling upstarts, a man named Howard Dee quietly stands out as a man apart, a man for others, a flame braving the tempest.

Tomorrow, Aug. 31, Dee, along with five other Asians—from Vietnam, East Timor, Cambodia and India (two)—will receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award from the foundation named after the beloved Filipino president who died in a plane crash in 1957. August 31, 2018, is Magsaysay’s 101st birth anniversary.  This year’s conferment of “Asia’s premier and highest honor” is on its 60th year.

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Dee is being recognized for “his quietly heroic half-century of service to the Filipino people, his abiding dedication to the pursuit of social justice and peace in achieving dignity and progress for the poor, and his being, by his deeds, a true servant of his Faith and an exemplary citizen of his nation.” His lecture, open to the public, is on Sept. 4, 10 a.m. to noon, at the RM Center.

What Dee said in 2006 when he received the Aurora Aragon Quezon Peace Awards he could say again now: “Today the flames of Edsa are flickering; peaceful reform is dying on the vine and our democracy is threatened again.”

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Dee also said once: “My heart is filled with gratitude yet I feel no sense of triumph. I feel no pride of achievement in the face of so much injustice and widespread poverty that condemns so many of our people to a life of subhuman existence.”

What will he say in his acceptance speech tomorrow?

Bearing witness has, in fact, been a way of life for the 87-year-old Dee, be it in the realm of his Christian faith or that of his country, family and a myriad other concerns. He talks softly but walks briskly toward a goal, especially if it involves those in the margins of society. And just as zealously, he has worked hard to address, in ways he knows how, the roots and causes of poverty and unpeace.

Born in Tondo in 1930, Dee attended San Beda College and, later, the University of the East, where he finished management and accounting. He later took graduate studies in economics and public finance. Dee is married to Betty Marie Dee, with whom he has four children.

Drawing inspiration from Italian Saint Francis of Assisi who embraced poverty and simplicity, Dee founded the Assisi Development Foundation in 1975. Social development, he believed, was a channel through which the poor could be empowered and raised from penury. A steward indeed, this former businessman divested himself of his wealth and bequeathed it, not to his children, but to poor and indigenous communities. (His children could very well fend for themselves.)

Dee had been active in Tabang Mindanao, Pagtabangan Basulta (Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) and the Philippine Business for Social Progress, as well as church-related ones like Bahay Maria and the Family Rosary Crusade. In 2004, he helped establish ASA Philippines, in partnership with the Benigno S. Aquino Foundation, to offer microfinance services for the poor. He was a driving force behind the Hapag-asa Feeding Program of Pondo ng Pinoy in the Archdiocese of Manila.

Dee even found time to be a public servant. He served for 16 years under four presidents, and was ambassador to the Vatican and Malta from 1986 to 1990. (When his son married a daughter of President Cory Aquino who appointed him, he resigned.) He later became lead convenor of the 1990 National Peace Commission, then chair of the panel for peace talks between the government and the armed communists from 1993 to 1996. In 2002, he became presidential adviser on indigenous peoples’ affairs.

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Dee also found time to write books about living the Christian faith. He likes to quote a French philosopher who said: “The important thing is not to be a success. The important thing is to be in history bearing witness. This is not the time to lose heart. Rather, it is in the darkness that our lamps should be lit and our hearts set ablaze.”

Dee’s own: “I have achieved nothing but by God’s grace. Serving is a privilege. Service is its own reward.”

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