Address delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN during the commencement exercises at the Taguig City University on May 4, 2016
I thank Mr. Aurelio Paulo R. Bartolome, President of the Taguig City University for inviting me as your guest speaker and to speak on the theme, “Nurturing Lives, Fulfilling Dreams.” AP, as he is fondly called, has distinguished himself as a brilliant student, much-sought after finance and management professional, outstanding public official, and now an admired educator. I also know his father, Arsenio Bartolome III, fondly called Archit, himself an accomplished business leader, former Cabinet secretary, civic leader, but most of all, a model husband and father and a faithful follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dear graduates, let me underscore how blessed all of you are to be beneficiaries of Taguig City’s generosity in giving you the opportunity to secure a college education for free and to have devoted and competent university officials, professors and parents who made sure you would be graduating today. Let us hail Mayor Lani Cayetano and the Taguig City Council for making this Graduation Day possible.
Truth to tell, I was hesitant to be your commencement speaker. I am no longer qualified to speak about current events and professional advancement. Perhaps then, I should just tell you my life story in the hope that it may help you nurture your lives and fulfill your dreams.
Born to Poverty and Hard Work
Like many of you, I was born poor. My father barely finished high school while my mother did not even make it through elementary school. Being the eldest of his seven siblings, my father had to take care of his brothers and sisters after their own father died at an early age. However, as a simple rank-and-file government employee, he could hardly afford to send all his seven siblings and his four children to school.
As the youngest in the family, I had to work at a very young age, hawking newspapers, selling cigarettes and shining shoes along the streets of Manila. Many times, I had to sleep on the sidewalks to be ready for the morning delivery of the newspapers I hawked. Envious of my classmates who were still asleep in their homes, tears would well up my eyes. I told myself, “Today, I am a just a newsboy. But, someday, I will be president of the Manila Times,” then the largest-circulated daily in our country.
Yes, I dreamed big. It helped me focus and persevere. It also helped me get through the self-pity that, admittedly, I sometimes indulged in. And the best part is that, much later on in 1991, prior to my stint in the Supreme Court, I became president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest-circulated daily currently. As you may know, I resumed my association with the Inquirer after I retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 by writing a column every Sunday.
Search for Education
But let me go back to the recollections of my youth. My classmates at Mapa High School and I used to go to the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. Before the Oblation, we promised each other that we would study hard so we would be granted scholarships at the state university.
I wanted to take up chemical engineering, but my strong-willed father ordered me to take up law, to fulfill his own frustrated ambition of being an attorney. Reluctantly, I agreed to his wishes, out of respect and esteem for him, who, by the way, died before I finished my first year prelaw.
As an honor student in a class of over 1,200 high school graduates, I was granted a UP scholarship but I still could not enroll in my chosen university because my impoverished father could not afford the then 15-centavo bus ride from our rented apartment in Cataluna Street, Sampaloc, Manila to the UP campus in Quezon City.
Frustrated, I applied for a scholarship at the nearby University of Santo Tomas, which was walking distance from our place. The old Dominican priest who interviewed me noted I had no catechetical background since I finished my basic education in public schools. So, he told me, “I will grant you a scholarship if you can answer three questions. First, how many Gods are there?” I quickly replied, “One.” Second question, “How many persons are there in one God?” I answered, “Three.”
Then came the final question, “Name them.” Believe it or not, I did not know the answer. So, I sheepishly said, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.” Yes, I failed the test and was refused a scholarship. Dejected, I went to FEU which was also nearby, where I was granted a scholarship with no questions asked.
At FEU, I had to sell bibles to my professors and the university officials for my pocket money. I also sold textbooks to my classmates in order to procure my own free copies as my commission from the booksellers and publishers.
As it turned out though, attending FEU was a major turning point in my life. At FEU, I met several mentors who took an interest in my development and future, who molded my young mind, and were kind enough to actively play a role in my life.
Friends and Benefactors
I met the brilliant Dr. Jovito R. Salonga, our young law dean, who taught me what he learned from the three schools he studied in, namely, UP for his basic law degree, Harvard for his master’s degree and Yale for his doctoral degree. He took a personal liking for me and consistently monitored my progress.
I also met arts and sciences Dean Alejandro R. Roces who, at 37, was later appointed the youngest secretary of education. He became my adviser and friend in my student leadership activities especially when I was elected president of the FEU Central Student Organization and when I organized and headed the National Union of Students of the Philippines, which was, and still is, the largest student organization in our country.
I likewise befriended Fr. Michael Nolan, the erudite FEU chaplain, who taught me the rudiments of my Catholic faith. From thereon, I read over a hundred books on Catholicism, attended various religious seminars, and joined several lay Catholic organizations. My religious rejuvenation was capped much later on by an appointment from the late Pope John Paul II as the only Filipino among the 30 members of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which advises the pontiff on “on all matters regarding the Christian life of the faithful.”
When it was time to take the bar examinations in 1960, I got sick and was hospitalized. On the first day of the exam, a heavy downpour hit the city. I had to walk in knee-deep flood water from the then FEU Hospital to the University of the East where the exams were being held. I felt I did not do well on that first day and I wanted to quit but Dr. Salonga advised me to continue. When the results came out, I still managed to place 6th.
At the recommendation of Dr. Salonga, I was granted a scholarship at the Yale University, but I did not have the funds to fly to the United States. My application for a travel grant at the US Embassy was rejected, probably because of my student activism. I was bitterly disappointed. Nonetheless, I continued doing my best and striving for excellence in teaching and practicing law as an assistant in the Salonga Law Office. After three years, I organized my own law firm with the blessings of Dr. Salonga.
To permanently solve my recurring problem of transportation, I organized the Baron Travel Corporation, which not only helped me in funding my children’s studies locally but also enabled me to send them abroad to finish graduate degrees in pedigreed universities such as Harvard, Stanford, University of California, University of Chicago and University of Michigan.
Rise to the Supreme Court
As for my personal career, if you will remember, I really did not want to be a lawyer, but in obedience to my father, I reluctantly pursued a law course. A legal career became my obsession after my father’s untimely demise when I was just a freshman in my prelaw studies.
I got to the Supreme Court without really aspiring for it. One day in June 1992, the then newly-elected president of our country, Fidel V. Ramos, invited me to a one-on-one meeting in his private office in Makati. We talked for over an hour, but in the end, he offered me to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Justice.
However, I respectfully declined saying that I did not deserve to be in his official family because I did not campaign for him. To this, President Ramos replied, “I know you did not campaign for me. You did not even vote for me. You voted for one of my opponents, Jovy Salonga. But that is alright because I know you well and I know also that you will serve with competence and integrity.”
I also said that my wife and my family were against a political career for me. Because of these reservations, he instead offered me a seat in the Supreme Court, an offer I could not refuse because it is the dream of every lawyer. After 10 years of faithful service in the Court, I was named by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as Chief Justice, without speaking with me at all about it.
What lessons can we learn from this brief summation of my life? There are at least five:
First. Be prepared for hard work. Dream big, yes. Do not limit yourselves as you start your career. But this also means you need to work hard. Things will not be served to you on a silver platter.
Second. Always strive for excellence. Do your best in whatever you do. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Be committed to all your endeavors because commitment yields grand results.
Third. Remember to persevere. Life is often unpredictable. Do not be discouraged by temporary setbacks. Do not wallow in self-pity. Keep in mind that, sometimes, adversities and misfortunes are really preludes to greater victories and successes.
Fourth. Be kind and forgiving. In my life, I have met many people who have been generous to me without expectation of any return, and who have overlooked my occasional shortcomings. This experience must have happened to you somehow, some time. Reciprocate by being kind and forgiving to others. And you will find that, truly, as St. Francis of Assisi prayed, “… it is in giving that we receive, it is pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Which brings me to the fifth and final lesson: Always have faith in God. Often, we pray and ask God for what we want. But sometimes we do not get what we aspire for. And we are disappointed. Always remember however that God knows our needs and wants better than we do. When I felt that doors were closing on me, windows of even better opportunity were unexpectedly being opened. Truly, God gives us more than we ask for in His time and in His way.
To conclude, I have journeyed from being a poor newsboy in the backstreets of Sampaloc, Manila to being president of the most widely read newspaper in our country; from a Catholic ignoramus to a member of the highest lay council of the Catholic Church in the Vatican; from a frustrated applicant for graduate studies to father of five wonderful children who each achieved my impossible dream of finishing in a pedigreed US university; from an aspiring chemical engineer to a reluctant lawyer and, finally, to the highest magistrate of our country. And now even in retirement, my work continues as a director, adviser or officer of several big companies, foundations and organizations. Once in a while, though unworthy, I am invited to address public gatherings like your graduation today, making me feel that my retirement is not really an end, but merely a change of tires to embark on a new, but hopefully less hazardous, journey.
As I contemplate my life and move toward its sunset, I know that God has woven my many pains and gains into a magnificent tapestry showing His mystical presence. Truly, there is one constancy in my life: the presence, care and providence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
To Him, I dedicate all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I will ever be. To God be the glory!