Dr. Jovito R. Salonga, My Guru and Surrogate Father

Eulogy in honor of the late Dr. Jovito R. Salonga delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN on March 14, 2016 during necrological rites sponsored by the Far Eastern University Law Alumni Association at the Loyola Memorial Chapel, Guadalupe, Makati City

Much has been written and said by broadcast and print media during the last few days about the many-splendored life of Dr. Jovito R. Salonga as an unpretentious scholar, assiduous bar topnotcher, prolific book writer, persuasive preacher, noted law dean, congressmen’s congressman, three times senatorial election topnotcher, revered Senate president, dedicated human rights advocate, passionate political reformer, patriot par excellence and quintessential statesman. Yes, he was all that and more. Nonetheless, I would like to add my humble voice on how I personally knew him up close.

Finding My Guru
The 1956-57 school year barely started when suddenly the 1,000 law students (yes, there were about 1,000 law students at FEU at the time) at the Far Eastern University Institute of Law declared a “strike” to protest what they perceived was the unjustified retirement of their then law dean, Francisco Lavides. As a new law student, I did not personally know Dean Lavides 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, approached the microphone, and single-handedly faced the hostile crowd. The new dean, Dr. Jovito R. Salonga, spoke with a forceful tremolo and held the rambunctious crowd spellbound.

In thirty minutes flat, the huge 1,000-student strong assembly trooped back to their classroom, convinced of the error in their mass action, and of the wisdom, honesty and sincerity of their new dean. Thus, did I (and many others) find the guru who would become my role model in my legal career and my life as a whole.

Student Activism
As a student, I was very active in extra-curricular 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 in evidence and corporation law, 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 not only at FEU but also in the national student milieu. Because of his constant monitoring, I was named “most outstanding student”on my third year and 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 on R. Papa Street 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 6th highest place.

Finding My Surrogate Father
At 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, who barely passed high school, passed away when I was just a first year pre-law 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. He lived almost an ascetic life. Wealth, power, worldly pleasures, titles and honors did not fascinate him. He lived simply so others may simply live.

That we were of different religious faith – he was a devout protestant, a respected and esteemed leader of the Cosmopolitan Church and I was merely 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, together with several other FEU graduates, like Dean Agustin O. Benitez, Dean Custodio O. Parlade and former Comelec Commissioner Leopoldo L. Africa, and later with Dean Antonio H. Abad Jr. and Dean Katheryn Lucson-Barinaga, all of whom were also bar topnotchers. He gladly and unselfishly gave me his blessing, saying, “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 personal legal counsel when he was Senate president and, concurrently, as the chief legal counsel of the Liberal Party which he then 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, self-imposed, personal ethic of being beyond suspicion in serving government. He set an example of an enduring and endearing way to serve with dignity, honor and old-fashioned delicadeza. Thus, when I joined the Supreme Court, I also dissolved our law partnership in obedience to his powerful example.

My ascension to the Court was not easy. Several times, I failed the screening at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). In all those trying years, Dr. Salonga constantly cheered me up and tirelessly uplifted 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.” Recalling Dr. Salonga’s legendary humility, Mrs. Feliciano wrote, “Not only did [Dr. Salonga] originate the idea of writing this book, his foreword give historical context and humanity, while his reflections provided legal depth. To my great awe and astonishment, besides being its publisher, he insisted my name comes before his!”

Those who have read my decisions and writings will surely detect the legal philosophy and life values of Dr. Salonga. Indeed, even if unworthily and faintly, I tried and still try to echo 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.

But his foremost teaching is not really about law as it is about life. And if my presence today in this necrological rites must have any relevance at all, I would like to sum up now the one teaching of my guru which I will always treasure, and it is this: While it is desirable to have the many necessities that money CAN buy, like adequate food on the table, sufficient clothing and shelter for the family, sports and recreation for the body and even a car and a house, never ever forget that it is far more important to aspire for, imbibe and live by the values that money CANNOT buy, like excellence, integrity, honor, dignity, and a reverential regard and love for God as the Source of all that is true, good and beautiful.

The mortal body of Dr. Salonga may have perished, but his legacy and memory will live forever. Alleluia! Amen!

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