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Cornelio Balmaceda, ‘Service above Self’

/ 12:12 AM September 12, 2016

UNLESS THE past is revisited from time to time, we and the younger generations following, may forget that “once, there were gentle souls like Cornelio Balmaceda who gave public service an irreproachable meaning… and whose life was a constant reminder that few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder” (columnist Ricardo Malay, 9/13/96).

Cornelio Balmaceda was born on Sept. 15, 1896, in the small, quiet town of Sarrat, Ilocos Norte. His parents were humble, hard-working farmers whose greatest dream was to see their only son finish with a college degree. Balmaceda not only finished with a degree from the University of the Philippines; he  would go on to Harvard as a government pensionado, graduating with a master’s degree in business administration and later serving as secretary of commerce and industry under two presidents, Elpidio Quirino and Diosdado Macapagal.

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His leadership role in the establishment of the Asian Development Bank and the selection of Manila as the site of the ADB headquarters would serve as the crowning achievement of his more than 40 years of government service. Each time I pass by the ADB building in Ortigas Center, I am reminded of Cornelio Balmaceda and how we tend to forget the work of a few, good men who placed service to country above personal glory.

It was as a cub reporter of the old Manila Times when Balmaceda met my aunt, Monica, elder sister of my mother. They belonged to one of the more prominent families in Sarrat, and there was some talk that he was a few notches below in social standing. But Monica’s mother was blind to differences in social status and saw in the young man much promise. She also admired his mother who she knew as a hard-working woman. The marriage of Cornelio and Monica was considered an excellent match pleasing both families and their relatives.

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Since I had spent most of my younger years in Baguio City, away from family, it was only later in life that I came to know my uncle. For me Cornelio Balmaceda was simply Tata Cornelio, a gentle person of quiet dignity, strength and rectitude.

There are a few things that stand out in my memory about Tata Cornelio. On the occasions when I needed some assistance from him, it was my aunt Monica who I would first approach and after discussions, he would then come out to talk things over. Unlike many others who would instantly try to please with the promise of swift, favorable action, Tata Cornelio would listen carefully, make a few remarks and comments, ask a couple of questions, then indicate that he would look into the matter and see what could be done within the bounds of propriety. He gave no promises, but somehow I felt that he would try his best to do what was possible.

Shortly after the death of President Manuel Roxas, his successor, President Elpidio Quirino, appointed Tata Cornelio as secretary of commerce and industry. I recall visiting the family during those years and wondering why a Cabinet official was living in an old quonset hut. But now I realize it would have been totally out of character for him to change his lifestyle on account of a new position.

When I was posted in Bangkok in the ’60s, Tata Cornelio was crisscrossing the region, meeting with Asian government officials, and working to ensure that Manila would be the site of the ADB. Bangkok was right at the crossroads of his travels, and so Penny and I would always have him for a quiet dinner at our place while waiting for connecting flights. He would always have a gift and sometimes a box of sweets for dessert and we would have a wonderful time, just the three of us, talking about his work and how prestigious it would be for the Philippines to have an ADB headquarters in Manila.

Many Filipinos know that the ADB is a key player among international financial institutions in the region. But few are aware of the role of Cornelio Balmaceda in its founding. Author Dick Wilson, in his book on the first 20 years of the ADB, “A Bank for Half the World,” credited Balmaceda among a few others for the establishment of the bank. “It was Asians,” he said, “like Takeshi Watanabe, Douglas Gunesekera, R. Krishnamurti, Cornelio Balmaceda, and U Nuyn, who took the initiative in forming the Asian Development Bank.” In recognition of his work, the ADB member-countries meeting for the first time in Tokyo, elected Balmaceda a member of the first ADB board of directors.

In April 1982, Cornelio Balmaceda passed away. Jesus Bigornia of the Bulletin wrote, “In these days of crass materialism and corruption in all levels of human activity, Cornelio Balmaceda stands out as a shining example for all people whether in private life or in government. He passed away unnoticed and was buried without the pomp and panoply that usually attend the last rites of other men. Even in death, he was modest.”

In a letter to Balmaceda’s eldest daughter Erlinda, Gen. Carlos P. Romulo said, “The country lost a great man when my friend and compadre passed away. Cornelio Balmaceda was not only a capable and efficient public official but he had an immaculate integrity that should serve as a beacon light for all those in government.”

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The life of Cornelio Balmaceda is a reminder of a time when Cabinet officials lived in old, refurbished quonset huts—public servants who, in the performance of their duties, kept in mind the fine distinction between politics and public service.

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Each year the family commemorates Cornelio Balmaceda’s birthday with a three-day outreach program that runs from Sept. 15 to 17 in remote barrios of Sarrat. Now on its 10th year, the program consists of scholarships, medical and dental services, English workshops, reading and feeding activities. It is carried out by the Cornelio Balmaceda Foundation headed by his grandson, Raffy Balmaceda.

The foundation is a brainchild of Grace Balmaceda (now deceased), the sixth child of Cornelio and Monica Balmaceda, who served as her father’s social secretary in the Department of Commerce and Industry. Knowing that her generation would not be around for very long, she placed her hopes on the younger Balmacedas to nurture the seed she planted and to continue her father’s legacy.

The advisory board guiding the work of the foundation is made up of Virginia B. Castro, Gloria B. Gozum and Rosemarie B. Lazaro.

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