Fr. Jim Donelan – his Camelot
PMA Class of 1956 yesterday marked its 65th graduation anniversary. Out of an original 80 cadets, only 51 would survive the four-year obstacle course at Fort Del Pilar. As of today, 17 are still around.
In 1956, the nation was at war with the Hukbalahap, or Huks, a peasant-guerilla army hardened by combat against Japanese occupation forces. With a large mass base that included a substantial armed component, it represented a formidable enemy for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Because of this threat, President Ramon Magsaysay decreed that all new graduates serve as platoon leaders in the battalion combat teams of the Philippine Army. In defeating the Huks, and as guardians of electoral polls, the Armed Forces won a reputation for professionalism and integrity. Magsaysay would also draw the military into civil administration. It was the first time some political involvement crept into the lives of the officer corps, a group basically imbued with an apolitical sense of duty and service. Martial law would change this outlook and things would never be the same again.
—————-In 1973, I took a master’s degree in management at the Asian Institute of Management. One of the first professors I met was a Jesuit priest from New York, Fr. James Francis Donelan. He turned out to be the institute’s founding father. Someone said he was Father Donelan to many people, Father Jim to a few close friends, and Gorgeous to a lot of women admirers. Incidentally, there were five AFP officers attending the course and one of our classmates was a Jesuit priest, Fr. Leo Larkin.
Many of Donelan’s students would say that a high point of their stay at AIM was his “grand tour” presentation — a series of lectures/video slides that brought alive the pageantry and history of ancient civilizations and developed in the individual a deeper appreciation of humanistic values in a world dominated by materialism and personal gain. One weekend, I came across a copy of Father Jim’s homily “My First Jesuit,” delivered on the occasion of his golden jubilee as a Jesuit. I was delighted to find out that the Society of Jesus almost lost their man to the world of aviation. Becoming a Jesuit was Plan A. Plan B was a flying career, if things did not work out with the Society. Up to about his third year in high school, flying was his main interest, and his special hero was a character named Speed Haslick, who flew a red Waco biplane, taking on passengers for three- or five-dollar rides over Manhattan. Donelan would take up a government offer of free flying training. (The United States was preparing for World War II.) He would win his wings after several hours of instructions and solo flights. Perhaps, this was the common bond that we shared—the mystic love of flying. Speed Haslick’s Waco biplane was not much different from the open cockpit PT-13 biplane that was used for our flight training at the PAF Flying School in Fernando Air Base, Lipa City.
Donelan was rejected twice by the Jesuits. On his third try, he was accepted, went on to become a priest, and was sent to the Philippines where he ended up as president of the Ateneo de Manila University, after teaching stints in Manila and Davao.
Father Jim moved among the high and the mighty, the rich and the cultured of our country, but perhaps his most remarkable attachment was with a less-privileged group of our society, the abandoned, neglected, and uncared for street children of our communities. In 1990, he and the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco established the Laura Vicuna Foundation for street children. It was the realization of a dream to help these unfortunate youngsters. At one of his birthday parties, they would thank him for being with them in their journey of hope.
On April 4, 1998, Jim Donelan made his last flight, headed for heaven. The necrological service was held at the Philippine Conference Hall of the AIM, where his friends and colleagues gathered to pay their last respects. In her response on behalf of the Donelan family, Sister Catherine Donelan of the Sisters of Charity, and Jim’s eldest sister, said, “the theme of Camelot was often used in Jim’s homilies, and after hearing all the wonderful words about him by the speakers this evening, I now understand why the Philippines was his Camelot, not just for one brief shining moment, but for a lifetime.”
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