Jovito R. Salonga, my guru and surrogate father
Much has been said about Jovito R. Salonga. Let me add my humble voice via a eulogy I delivered during his wake, edited to fit my limited space. For the complete version, log on to cjpanganiban.com and click “speeches.”
Finding my guru. The 1956-57 school year had barely started when, suddenly, the law students of the Far Eastern University declared a “strike” to protest what they perceived was the unjustified retirement of their law dean. As a new law student, I did not personally know our old dean but I went along with the strikers as they filled the FEU auditorium with clenched fists and anguished cries of “persecution!”
Then, a youngish 36-year-old, bespectacled professor walked to center stage, took the microphone, and single-handedly faced the hostile crowd. The new dean, Dr. Salonga, spoke with a forceful tremolo and held the rambunctious crowd spellbound.
In 30 minutes flat, the strikers trooped back to their classrooms, convinced of the error in their mass action, and of the wisdom, honesty and sincerity of their new dean. Thus did I find the guru who would become my role model in my legal career and my life as a whole.
I was very active in extracurricular activities as president of the FEU Central Student Organization and as founder and president of the National Union of Students. I tended to give secondary importance to my academic studies. But Dr. Salonga constantly reminded me that my first duty was to excel in academics.
As my professor, he would ask me to recite when student activities were at their height, to test whether I gave priority to my studies amid adulation for my leadership activities. Because of his constant monitoring, I was chosen “most outstanding student” in my third year and, later, graduated with Latin honors.
A few days prior to the 1960 bar exams, I got sick. Worse, a rainstorm flooded the city. I had to wade in knee-deep water from the then FEU Hospital, where I was confined, to the University of the East, the exam venue.
After what I thought was a lackluster first day, I wanted to quit the remaining exam days. But Dr. Salonga would not hear of it. With his encouragement, I still passed, copping the sixth highest place.
Surrogate father. On his recommendation, I was granted a scholarship at Yale Law School. But I did not have the funds to fly to the United States. The American Embassy turned down my application for a travel grant, perhaps because of my student activism.
Dr. Salonga consoled me, saying, “Come, join my law office and I will teach you what I learned from the University of the Philippines, Yale and Harvard.” Thus began his tutorship as my surrogate father (my biological father passed away when I was just a first year prelaw student).
Indeed, he taught me the rudiments of law practice and, more important, the life-defining values of integrity, prudence and fairness. He led by example, not by words. He was a dedicated husband, a caring father, a faithful friend and a devoted man of God. He did not smoke, drink or gamble. Wealth, power, worldly pleasures, titles and honors did not fascinate him.
The difference in our religious faith—he was a devout Protestant and I was a fledgling Catholic—did not diminish our over 50 years of surrogate father-son relationship, or my awe, esteem and affection for him. This is probably because we never discussed what separated us, only what truly bound us.
After three years of serving as his law office assistant, I asked his permission to form my own law firm. He unselfishly gave me his blessing: “You now have formidable wings, go and soar the limitless sky!”
Greatest honor. Prior to my appointment to the highest court of the land, Dr. Salonga accorded me the greatest honor in my legal career, not by awarding me a plaque of gold or conferring on me an honorary degree, but by retaining me as his legal counsel when he was Senate president and, concurrently, as the chief legal counsel of the Liberal Party which he headed. Nothing is more fulfilling, more exhilarating, than the honor of being counsel to one’s guru and former boss!
Before Dr. Salonga joined the Cabinet of President Cory Aquino in 1986, he divested himself of conflicting financial interests as required by law and dissolved his prestigious law firm, not because this was mandated by law but because of his strict personal ethic of being beyond suspicion in serving government. Thus, when I joined the Supreme Court, I also dissolved our law firm in obedience to his example.
My ascension to the Court was not easy. Several times, I failed the screening at the Judicial and Bar Council. In all those trying years, Dr. Salonga constantly cheered me up and tirelessly lifted my sagging spirit. And whenever I felt really low, he patiently reminded me of Romans 8:28: “God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”
Upon my retirement as chief justice, Dr. Salonga and Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano published a book in late 2007 titled “A Test of Courage” as, to quote them, “a tribute to the noble men and women justices … of the Panganiban Court.”
Those who have read my decisions and writings will surely detect the legal philosophy and life values of Dr. Salonga. Indeed, I try to echo, even if unworthily and faintly, his teaching that law cannot be separated from life, that it should be used as a brick in building the social edifice and as a means to fulfill the deepest aspirations of man.
The mortal body of Dr. Salonga may have perished but his legacy and memory will live forever. Alleluia!
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