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[Special Report] The nation weeps for the mayor in slippers

He was the mayor who wore slippers even while in his office at the Naga City Hall. He walked along the streets of his beloved city in sandals. The plain white shirt and denims, along with rubber slippers or sandals, endeared the late Jesse Robredo, who later would become the president’s choice to lead the Department of Interior and Local Government.

More than the attributes of simplicity, which were shared by his co-convenors in Kaya Natin, a movement for good governance and ethical leadership, Robredo had a profound purpose to serve his people.

Grace Padaca, former Isabela Governor and who is now one of the lead advocates of Kaya Natin, in an interview, remembered that side of Robredo who would always hurry home to see his “girls”—his wife and three daughters.

“Gusto rin siguro maki-long weekend” was Padaca’s first thought when she heard the news about the plane crash that occurred on a Saturday, August 18, the start of the four-day “long weekend” after August 20 and 21 were declared public holidays.

Padaca thought the late DILG secretary could not wait for the commercial flight and wanted to go home to Naga earlier. “[It was] So like of him to spend with his family every minute he could squeeze into his schedule,” Padaca said.

She and the Kaya Natin group held an emergency meeting to gather strength and comfort one another, hanging on to the belief that like his aide, Senior Insp. June Paolo Abrazado, Robredo survived and hopefully would be found soon. “Kahit magka-amnesia siya, kahit hindi niya na tayo kilala, basta buhay siya,” she told them.

“Wala na,” was all Padaca could say when she received a text message saying that Robredo’s body had been found. “We could no longer coax ourselves into believing that we would still see Secretary Jesse again, with his nonchalant, unaffected ways,” Padaca said, adding that he who you know is great, but his greatness boosts you rather than intimidates you.

“Ang sakit tanggapin na si Sec. Jesse ang nasa kabaong na iyan,”Padaca muttered in grief as she watched the footages of the president bringing Robredo’s remains to his wife and children. “The secretary I know is one who would arrive and get down to business at once—effectively, ethically, and well—because any extra time, he would use to be home with his family,” Padaca said.

It was indeed Robredo’s mark as a husband and father, and the totality of his person, who would always hurry home, as Susan “Toots” Ople, an advocate for OFWs and labor, in her post dedicated to Robredo, wrote Nauna ka na naman. Hanggang ba naman sa kamatayan ay nagmamadali ka?”

Ople recalled in her blog post how Robredo would arrive ahead of their group that took a course at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1998. She wrote, “Akala ko nga mayabang ka kasi sikat na mayor ka nga. Maski nga sa Cambridge, nauna ka rin sa aming dumating.”  According to Ople, he was the happiest of them all because he was able to include the Ethics in the list of courses he wanted to take up.

They addressed them “Kuya,” and even as he later became the DILG secretary, Ople wrote, “Kuya ka pa rin – dumami lang nga mga kapatid mo. Kapatid na pulis, bombero, taga-media, urban poor sa pangkalahatan ng bansa, pati nga mga OFWs na sawi ang mga pangarap, inampon mo rin. Pati nga Presidente ng Pilipinas, higit pa sa kapatid ang turing mo.”

Robredo was always ahead, in time or in action, a Bicolana describes him.  Atty. Katrina Nepomuceno, a corporate lawyer, who hails from Iriga City, recalled how she was surprised to find out that there was no anteroom to the mayor’s office.

It was in the late 90s, probably in 1997, Nepomuceno recalled, when she was to meet with him for an official business. She was in her early 20s then and her naïvete had her stereotyping mayors or government officials. “I also anticipated then that I had to wait,” she recalled, believing that that was the norm—people are made to wait for the government official. “But he was already there when I arrived,” she said.

As she went in, she saw that the room was huge, with a long table in the middle lined by Monoblock chairs. “There were people in the room, seated in the chairs,” she said, adding that the rule was as one entered the room, he or she was to sit in the next available chair as if the queuing was automatic. There they were all in the room, and everyone could hear the discussions with everyone.

Nepomuceno would now think that perhaps as a mayor, it was Robredo’s way of being above board in everything he did in his office. Even a father of a child with scabies was in the queue, and the late mayor would discuss the matter personally. “He wrote a note and instructed his assistant to help the father go to the city health officer,” Nepomuceno said.

Her meeting with Robredo was quick and to the point. “Everything that my company transacted with the Mayor’s office then was consulted with the city council, made subject of a committee hearing, and had an ordinance when it was needed,” she said.

Years later, Robredo would still remember her face, always calling her Kat whenever she was at the city hall. “I don’t know how he did it, but he remembered people and greeting them even when there was a multitude around.”

Mayor Robredo raised the bar in governance, Nepomuceno said, the transparency and process of which she made her own standard in dealing with government offices.

Argee Gallardo kept going back to that Sunday afternoon when she received that fateful call from a colleague. Gallardo, a former staff assigned at the Liberal Party headquarters and now working at the Department of Budget and Management, could only ask herself questions that seemed no one would be able to answer. “The news of the plane carrying JMR [the former secretary’s acronym] crashing in Masbate seemed surreal. But reality started sinking in and a number of questions flashed in my mind—[was there] engine trouble? Was it a deliberate attempt by someone to stop Sec. Jesse? Did he manage to swim out? What happened? It seemed not minutes but hours [went by] before I could call my boss, Sec. Butch Abad, but by then, he had already heard the news,” Gallardo said.

She said she was too anxious even as she prayed the rosary at the St. Jude Church for more than half an hour. “I decided to join my boss and some colleagues in the office where we monitored the news, gathered contact details of the Robredo family in Naga and coordinated with the search and rescue teams,” Gallardo added.

The next day, Gallardo would imagine seeing Secretary Robredo and the two pilots floating in the sea, amidst the debris, and being rescued by passing ships. She had not stopped praying and stayed hopeful.

Gallardo likened the retrieval of Secretary Robredo’s remains to the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after His death. “The search for Sec. Jesse also ended,” she said, adding that those three days seemed so long.

“I could not begin to imagine what his family and other close friends [were] going through. The closure that I prayed for was granted. Although it would have been better if he [were] still alive, I am convinced that Sec. Jesse lived a full life. He fought a good fight; he [has] finished the race, and [has] always kept the faith.”

Merien Cervantes Esber, who works at the Masbate governor’s office, was still recovering from fatigue after the grueling days of the search and rescue operations at the time of this interview, but could not deny the sadness albeit remembering the people’s volunteerism.

“Sec. Robredo’s [death] brought sadness in all of us,” she said, saying however that while it was tragic, it also “brought out the goodness and the heroic deeds of our kababayans, the nameless faces who did not wait to be called but willingly volunteered themselves, the local divers,though limited in gadgets for deep sea diving and whose licenses were limited to open sea diving only, risked their own lives to save a good man.”

Esber recalled that at the command center at the La Sala Resort, various government and civic organizations like Red Cross, Kabalikat Civicom, had put up booths. “Even the resort’s owner didn’t charge any amount, instead volunteered [to provide] several boxes of [bottled] water,” she said.

Two days before the fateful accident, Carmela Ariza had posed for a photo op with the late secretary even as it was not her thing to have a picture taken with government officials. “… one of the exceptions in my life—having a photo taken with a secretary which I usually do not do,” she commented on her Facebook wall.

“Sec. Robredo gave the keynote speech that day, August 16, at the Knowledge Sharing Partnerships in Monitoring Public Services, which was part of the De La Salle University Institute of Governance Project: Institutionalizing Civil Society Monitoring and Assessment of Public Service Delivery to the Poor,” Ariza recalled. She was one of the consultants working on the project.

She took away one message from his speech: “Ang kailangan natin sa LGU ay di ang magaling lang o ang matino lang. May mga magagaling, pero di naman matino. May mga matino, pero di naman magaling. Kailangan natin ang magaling at ang matino.” Then she wrote on her Facebook wall, “Here was a secretary who was not just promoting the values and principles in good governance, he was embodying these values and principles.”

On August 21, Ariza wrote a poem to honor the good man, Keeping Faith With Secretary Jess Robredo. “When a good man goes; Who will water the seeds he sowed; Who will watch over the growing seedling; And fence the vulnerable sapling; Of good governance…”

It will be long before the tributes stop. Even social networking sites are bursting with stories upon stories about the late secretary’s mark of a good public official—transparent, efficient, and ethical.

A plane crash would not crush the spirit of this man, who was also both simple and profound as a person, the mayor who wore slippers in his office and who walked the streets of his native Naga City in sandals, fulfilling his purpose to the very end.

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