A tribute to ‘Lolo Ben’ | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

A tribute to ‘Lolo Ben’

I was abroad when I received word that my uncle, Ben Labayen, who last served government as an undersecretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform, had passed away. He was 94 years old and was buried in his hometown of Alaminos, Pangasinan.

There was little I could do apart from condoling with his family from far away. Consider this, then, as a belated tribute to a man whom we all considered as a “second father,” not just because he and his family lived just a few streets away from our family home in Cubao, but also because whenever he espied any of us, children of his best friend, my Papa Erning, and of his wife Nora’s  “seesterr,” my Mama Narni, he would embrace us in a warm bear hug and comment heartily on how well we had been doing.

I remember the last lunch I had with him and his daughter Mila Atienza (with my cousin Maris Gavino), and how, hard of hearing by then, he dominated the restaurant’s interiors with his booming voice and huge presence, which not even age and illness could diminish. He regaled us with stories of wartime exploits (he was a Death March survivor), as well as with political chismis (he was a key figure in the early negotiations over Hacienda Luisita). Even then, his ardor for social justice was undimmed. His was truly an outsize personality, jovial and high-spirited, and I am sure his nine children—Boy, Leslie, Dennis, Benjie, Mayen, Mila, Chito, Loy and Leon—with their spouses, children, and grandchildren, miss him terribly.


What I didn’t know, though, was how Tito Ben was also looked on as a father figure by many whose lives he had somehow touched. One of them is my Inquirer colleague, Tina Arceo Dumlao, who read about his illness in a column I wrote, where I asked for prayers for his recovery. It seems that Tina’s mother worked for the DAR during Tito Ben’s time there, and came to consider him a surrogate parent.


Tina wrote a letter to Tito Ben, in hopes that he would get to read it when he recovered. Unfortunately, he never snapped awake from a coma, and the letter remains as a tribute to a man who was a father to a large brood but still found time and energy to nurture and encourage other young people he encountered. He will not be forgotten. Here is Tina’s letter.

* * *

Dearest Lolo Ben,

I know that you’re tired and probably want to just lie down and relax, but I hope you’ll spare a few minutes to read this letter that I should have written years ago.

Put simply, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you for taking a keen interest in my studies when I was in grade school, high school and then college.


Because of you, I did well enough to enter UP and graduate with honors. You were such an inspiration because you encouraged me to be the best I can be.

It was you who encouraged me to learn how to type when I was in high school and that skill has indeed helped me in my career as a journalist.

Thank you for giving me books like Pat Conroy’s “The Lords of Discipline,” which inspired me to become a writer. The beauty of the language of the book remains my own Everest. One day, I hope to be able to write just like him. If it weren’t for you, I would not have realized that there is such an art in literature.

I guess you saw in me potential to be great. Your belief has made a world of difference in my life, and it continues to make me stretch and strive to fulfill my potential.

Thank you also for making my wedding extra special by being there. It would not have been complete without you. I didn’t even know that you were coming, and seeing you there made my wedding day one of the happiest days of my life.

* * *

I am just sorry that I have not been in touch for many, many years.

I didn’t know how to find you because I knew you were in the States. I also didn’t follow where you lived and how to get in touch with you.

I must tell you though that you were never far from my thoughts. You’ve always been my guardian angel after all, guiding me and showing me the right path to take.

I am happy to tell you that I have been able to put your faith, guidance and inspiration to good use.

I am now a desk editor of the Inquirer and the youngest in my position.

My son, Miggy, is now 16 and is entering UP Baguio, and will major in history.

I have a great life, Lolo Ben. I really couldn’t ask for more. I have a great career, family, and I feel that I am doing my part to help our country by being a good journalist.

All these would not have been possible without you, Lolo Ben.

I owe you my life, I want you to know that, and I am happy that I have this opportunity now to tell you just how much you meant to me.

So again thank you for everything, Lolo Ben.

I love you.

* * *

Erratum. My apologies to Fr. Francisco

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“Kito” Estepa, SVD, president of Holy Name University in Tagbilaran, Bohol, for forgetting to mention him and misstating the name of the institution he represents in the article “Maytime in Bohol” (Lifestyle, 6/10/12). Considering how the Holy Name community was so generous to us, and how Father Kito was so personally accommodating, I am chagrined and contrite. Mea culpa!

TAGS: At Large, Family, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David

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