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Francis Varela, public servant and colleague

Two years ago, he appeared at one board meeting with his arm in a cast. He explained that he and his motorcycling group were on one of their trips to northern Luzon when his cycle crashed. We were at the edge of our seats as he narrated what happened. But as he vividly recounted the close shave and relived the exact split second when he knew an accident was certain to happen, he remembered no fear. Nor a serious lamentation that his damaged motorcycle was just newly bought. Nothing to worry about, he said, being a regular at the shop. And we could tell that his sense of daring and adventure would always continue to overpower all else. There was no stopping him—on his motorbike or at the Department of Education.

That was why when I found out that he figured in a fatal crash on that cruel Saturday morning of Aug. 29, I was not surprised that he had continued to pursue his passion with big bike-riding and the sense of total freedom it always gave him. But I was devastated and distressed to know that when his motorcycle skidded on the Pililla, Antipolo, that day, he did not make it. How could the DepEd’s superhero Batman, the term of endearment conferred on him by his staff, who gave him Batman cufflinks as a birthday present on March 30, have been so vulnerable?

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We at the National Book Development Board (NBDB) had a special bond with Undersecretary Francis Varela because he was the DepEd’s designate as NBDB vice chair. How fortunate to have him with us since 2011; he was no nominal vice chair and neither was he your typical government bureaucrat who spoke only empty, ambiguous diplomatese. He was sharp and direct, guiding us to the judicious use of our budget, advising us on the fine print of contracts, reminding us about DBM (Department of Budget and Management) and COA (Commission on Audit) restrictions. Like Education Secretary Armin Luistro, he was very concerned about unethical practices in the publishing industry so that we chided him when, during the rounds of interviews for NBDB executive positions, he was raising pointed questions. “Are you continuing your investigation for the department?” wehad to ask.

What little time he had to spare from his responsibilities as education undersecretary for finance and administration, he would generously give us. Why, he was always just a text away and would respond to my nagging reminders about documents buried on his desk, the fate of the Library Hub, feedback that he and Secretary Armin ought to know, his aunts in Bacolod (on the Varela side) awaiting a visit, and even a personal complaint about our family driver’s grandson being harshly spoken to on the first day of school.

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Our monthly breakfast meetings were set based on his available mornings and he never failed us except for an occasional Malacañang meeting on the DepEd budget. And because he was the only board member that could read and speak Cebuano (he is from Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental), by default, he chaired the committee for the Cebuano manuscripts for the NBDB Trust Fund author grants.

The only task we never got him to do, except once, was to deliver a speech. This rare occasion was at the Museo Pambata for the 2013 Little Lit Fest opening ceremony. He surprised us with his acceptance, but he got a bigger surprise from the NBDB who arranged for his only son, Rafa, then only seven, to introduce his father.

From that time on, after we saw for ourselves how articulate and precocious Rafa was, Francis would get a kick out of receiving constant invitations for Rafa mailed to his DepEd central office. Rafa became NBDB’s favorite panelist for child readers and was a likely choice for the board of reader judges for the first-ever Kids’ Choice Book Awards. That initial public appearance of Rafa also caught the attention of KidZania folks who promptly recruited him as one of their child models.

Fellow board member Karina Bolasco, heartbroken as the rest of us, remembers Francis and the “positive energies” he exuded from “how he carried himself in board meetings: straightforward, noncombative but firm, was always helpful in analyzing (not just financial) problems…. He never raised his voice, not once, yet the Board more often than not, followed that voice.” She last saw him along with his entire family at a recent Spanish guitar concert where Adrik, son of Che Cristobal and Dina Ocampo, performed. The families are close friends not only because of the DepEd but also because their sons were child judges for the Kids’ Choice Awards. It impressed Karina that the Varela family patiently stood at the back as there were no more seats, and when chairs were provided them, they did not bother to be in the VIP center rows in the Ayala lobby.

Thank you, Francis for the chance to work with you and allowing us to know you beyond your official government title.

How it pains to say goodbye.

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Correction to my Aug. 22 commentary titled “Dad in white, lying dead on the tarmac.” The Aquinos lived in Chestnut Hill, Newton, Massachusetts, not Newport.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: accident, Armin Luistro, Department of Education, Francis Varela, motorcyle crash, National Book Development Board
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