Tributes to the Living

I am certain that the late Gerry Gil of the Standard would have postponed his death by at least a week if only so he could read what his friends and admirers have written  about him after his untimely passing.  But hasn’t this always been the unhappy side of dying?  That we do not get to know  what we mean to others until it is too late.

Fortunately this state of affairs is probably coming to an end.  Today, more and more Filipinos are learning to express their admiration for their friends and loved ones in public settings.  In the past, we could only do this within the framework of satire or playful criticism, as if openly paying tribute to a colleague or a relative was something intrinsically embarrassing.

Last week, I was present in separate testimonials for 2 dear friends, Ricardo Zarco and Francisco Nemenzo,  both professors at the UP.  Ric Zarco, was one of my first mentors in the Department of Sociology.  He taught me sociology of deviance, motorcycling, and everything I know about guns.  A completely non-violent person, he never carried a gun for display or as a weapon.  It was the craftsmanship he was interested in.

Professor Zarco belongs to that vanishing breed of university-based intellectuals, who have never known any other employer or community apart from the university.  On his 65th birthday and after forty years of exemplary service as a teacher and  researcher, Professor Zarco must formally retire.  It is the law. But like all the others of his generation, he will continue to come to the campus, offering to advise a thesis student or to lecture.  I am sure of that.  Their glands will simply not stop functioning at age 65.

Zarco is best known for his research on drug abuse.  His pioneering work on marijuana use produced the important insight that marijuana was basically consumed in the context of a group; therefore, the role of the barkada in the initiation to drug use must be explored.  Professional researchers in the police establishment are familiar with his work.

My home department, the Department of Sociology organized a testimonial symposium so that long-time friends like Congressman Teodulo Natividad and  Dr. Cicero Campos could deliver lectures on topics in which Professor

Zarco had made a mark.  Though he had not known him before, Secretary Alunan came to deliver the keynote speech as well as to secure the professor’s assistance in clarifying some aspects of the  present crime situation.  This was followed by songs rendered by a choral group of senior professors, and later by personal recollections and tributes offered by his former students and associates.

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The tribute for Dodong Nemenzo, on the other hand, was supposed to be  a surprise for him.  He is not yet retiring.  But he is going away in August for about a year to accept a visiting professorship at the International Christian University in Tokyo.   We  jokingly refer to this as academe’s version of an OCW assignment.

His friends and comrades in the mass movement decided to pay Dodong a special tribute at the end of the Bisig congress.  He had been its founding Chair and had remained its principal mentor for nearly a decade now.

Like most events organized by the Left, the tribute to Dodong was basically unplanned.  There were no invitations.   Speakers were approached only a few minutes before they actually spoke.  But on the whole it came out well. The spontaneous warmth and camaraderie that marked the evening more than made up for the lack of preparation.  Gary Granada was there, of course. And his irreverent humor was an effective counterpoint to the accustomed grimness of militants.

Comrades from the other political blocs came, and, in an unusual display of personal regard, remembered Dodong’s qualities in the most affectionate manner.  Princess Nemenzo spoke with understandable reluctance, and paid tribute to Dodong’s essential integrity and sentimentality.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I declined the invitation to speak.  I had known Dodong for 28 years.  And he is probably the closest of the few friends that I have.   But precisely for this reason, I wanted to make sure that my recollection of his most admirable traits as a person would not be careless or trivial.  I felt bad about not being able to overcome my limitations to honor a dear friend.  But in my heart I knew that I did not have enough eloquence that evening to do justice to what I needed to say.

A tribute to a living person, done in public, runs the risk of being too general or too banal.  In either instance, the genuine esteem that one person has for another is left unsaid, buried in words and empty gestures.  I consoled myself with the belief that sometimes silence is more eloquent.

A thing  is the sum  of its effects, Nietzsche wrote.  So is a person’s life.  But these effects are not equally recognized.  Hence they do not all acquire the status of events.  It is introspection that allows us to select the definitive events in a person’s life, and to abstract the traits by which we know and remember him.  It is probably one of the most sensitive of all human acts: to tell a person in public how he has affected you.

I did not learn my socialist theory from Dodong Nemenzo.  But I learned the basics of computers from him.  He taught me the power of words, and the dying art of polemics.  He showed me the value of friendship, beyond all ideology; the virtue of generosity and simple thoughtfulness.  He is, as Princess said he was: above all a family man,  an obsessive teacher, and a sentimental friend.

There.  It is refreshing to be able to say that of a friend while he is very much alive.


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