Welcome Remarks of Federico R. Lopez at OML@85: A Life Set to Music on April 16, 2015
Rizal Ballroom, Makati Shangri-La
A favorite writer of mine, Kent Nerburn, in his book “Letters to My Son” talks about brief fleeting moments in our lives when we’re “truly alive to the world around us”. He has a phrase for these instants, which he calls “blue moments”. “You will know them only in memory.” He says: “But you will never forget them. They can be moments of love or even moments of fear. They are moments to seize, hold, but more than anything, never to turn away from. For when they pass we will be as we were.” These priceless moments string together like pearls to make up our lives and it’s up to us to find them, make them, and bring them alive in others.
I had such a blue moment with my fourteen-year-old son, Robert, while we were camping in Itbayat, Batanes, a rugged, sparsely populated island along the northernmost tip of the country (thanks to the assistance of Sec. Butch Abad who unfortunately couldn’t join us tonight). Robert, myself, and our two Ivatan guides all carried our own backpacks--each with about 40 to 60 pounds of food, tents and provisions--for several hours up toward a cliff rising 150 meters above the sea where we spent four breathtaking days under sun and stars. It was my way of showing him how the simplest experiences in life could also become our most treasured.
On our second day, while chopping wood for the dinner fire with my bolo, that blue moment came when he innocently asked me a question, “Did Tata (as he fondly calls my dad) teach you how to do that?” I was amused with his question but it took me a few seconds to think about it before I eventually said, “No”. But somehow that didn’t seem to capture the whole truth. Immediately, new ones came to mind like: But why do we enjoy nature and the outdoors this way? Why am I trying to give you a taste of life away from electricity, electronics and city comforts? If my dad never instructed me or my siblings on how to chop wood, what did he teach us?
To answer those questions correctly meant rewinding four or five decades back to when we were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
My dad was always an “A” student destined for Harvard, and scholastic honors came easily to him. Our early academic performance as kids growing up wasn’t particularly stellar and most of us were characteristically “C”, or maybe “B” students on a good day. So you can imagine the shock he had upon discovering that Cary and I hadn’t learned yet to do longhand division by the time we were a certain grade level at La Salle (apologies to Brother Armin). This was the one instance I remember him trying to instruct us on HOW to do something. So we spent a few hours late one evening as he set out to teach us the rudiments of longhand division. However, both of us could sense his anger and frustration that his two boys couldn’t do something as basic as that. I’m not sure who was more traumatized by the experience--he or us--so I don’t recall him ever tutoring us again after that.
Thus, he was never one to micromanage our school work and oftentimes upon his arrival from work, he would pop his head into our rooms and ask the dreaded question, “Have you boys done some studying?” I have to admit, Dad, that we always said yes but in truth all those schoolbooks and notebooks scattered all over our desks were there only five minutes earlier. For the last two hours Cary and I were either playing a game of shooting stars, drawing spaceships or cars of the future, or imagining World War II battlefields on the bedroom floor with toy soldiers we had just shoved under the bed on hearing your car at the gate.
Although life at home was never an academic concentration camp, probably because eight of us were too many to tutor, Mom and Dad still created an environment for us that encouraged learning in so many ways beyond school.
First, there was Music. I can’t recall a time when our lives didn’t revolve around music. One of the major decisions we had to make over dinner was which record to play. Usually dad’s choice was to put one of his classical ones or a Streisand or Ray Conniff Album. Sometimes he would let us choose and Cary and Cedie would vie for either the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” album or Carole King’s “Tapestry”. When Jay came along in the 1970s he would get his way at playing Barry Manilow’s “Greatest Hits” with special repeat plays of “Copacabana”. It was similarly a major decision during long car rides of our whole family, either in a wood paneled station wagon or later on the extended Ford Clubwagon. Again, dad’s first option was to play classical titles often interspersed with Frank Sinatra, Trini Lopez, The Sandpipers or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. However, since it was so difficult to buy the latest records in the country at that time many of us kids willingly found ourselves on lazy Sunday afternoons selecting from Dad and Lolo’s huge record collection stored in one of the closets of our family hall. That’s how we got familiar with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner and even Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. On that last one, I still remember Cary’s face when we discovered that 45 rpm single, played it and heard the words. We were simultaneously embarrassed but delighted like when you just discover your father’s hidden stash of Playboy magazines.
Yet another treat for us, although we haven’t heard him in the last 40 years, were times after dinner when Dad would get on the piano and we would impatiently request him to play “Malaguena” or “The Shadow of Your Smile” which he learned purely by ouido. He exposed us to such a broad range of music and it was central to our home life that a day never went by without it.
Yet another aspect of our lives growing up was always being around nature, the outdoors, trees, mountains, the sea and animals. Weekends were spent at the family’s sixty-hectare spread in Paradise farms, Bulacan. Although Gabby may soon transform the area into the bustling headquarters of ABS-CBN in a few years, back then we spent endless weekends running hills, climbing guava trees, making slingshots and catching fireflies after nightfall. Incidentally, Dad, Gabby and I spent the morning there yesterday for the first time after more than 30 years. Gabby, that was some trip down memory lane and I could tell from his smiles, even over dinner last night, it definitely meant a lot to Dad as it did to me. My dad in those days was always trying to farm one crop or another, raising everything from dogs to horses, cows, pigs, peacocks and Peking ducks and every possible ornamental tree and flower for his landscaping business called Better Farms and Gardens. And I’d like to add that we all grew fond of his general manager for these projects, Mr. Ernie Mendoza, now an ageless 86 (who’s also here with us tonight). Today my dad even has a towering hundred-foot Bombax tree in the middle of his garden that he planted more than 50 years ago as a tiny sapling he took from the farm. However, I never remember him making any money from those ventures but just being close to the earth and living things was always something he loved and it was impossible for this part of him not to rub off on his children.
Maybe one trait he had which struck me the most was his attitude toward wealth and material things. Sometime in November 1982, I was on my last semester at the University of Pennsylvania doing a term paper for a graduate level course surveying major political revolutions through history. For that paper I had the opportunity to have lunch with Ninoy and Cory Aquino, and with a then much younger President Noy and his sister Viel, at their home in Boston during Ninoy’s last few months in exile. I will never forget my two hours breaking bread and sharing thoughts with them especially nearing those pivotal years in our country’s history. But there was something Ninoy said at the end of our meeting that struck me. He said, “You know I had quite a tussle with your Lolo Eñing sometime in 1968”. I asked, “What about?” He said, “Well, it was over the extravagance of your Lolo’s Ruby Anniversary celebration with the Champagne fountains, flying in European royalty and American entertainers and all. I just felt at the time it was not proper for a country mired in so much poverty.” “But well”, Ninoy shrugged, “He believed God gave him the opportunity to make a lot of money and so he felt he could spend it however he wished.”
Upon returning home to Manila that Christmas I mentioned the comment of Ninoy to my Mom and she expressed something dad never revealed before: “We never told you this but your dad felt the same way and voiced those same concerns and sentiments to your Lolo. Doing so strained their relationship, and later resulted in his exclusion from a subsequent trip to Hong Kong acknowledging everyone who helped in the success of the celebration”. Knowing how much he greatly admired his father, I know that must have hurt him immeasurably. But for me this story closed so many unconnected dots in my mind about Dad. It exemplified his conviction that wealth can empower you to do great things, but it also carried great responsibilities and he never believed that our happiness should ever have to revolve around its ephemeral trappings. If there was anything we took consistently from him and mom throughout our lives, it was this. So when our family lost everything during the Martial Law years, even if it pulverized our social, political, and material world into bits, we never lost a sense of purpose and meaning. And far from seeing those years through a lens of bitterness, we look back to them as the most powerful, formative, and even among the happiest times of our lives.
Of course anyone familiar with Dad will know about his fascination for books. Ever since we were kids he always had a library at home.
Today that library right next to his bedroom is two-storeys high, exceeds 12,000 titles, and is still growing. I vividly remember a Sunday ritual we had in the 1960s where our family would regularly drop by Bookmark, close to Rizal Theater on Ayala Avenue, where we would all quietly browse for an hour but always with one eye honed towards wherever Dad was. When he finally walked towards the cashier, all of us would bolt over to include our choice of book to buy. He had an unspoken tenet when we went into bookstores and he would buy for us so long as it contributed to our love of reading.
Apparently this attraction for books was something Dad shared with his own father. We recently discovered a trove of letters he had written to Lolo while he was still at Harvard sometime in 1959-60. In them, you could see how he was shaping and defining the direction of the Lopez Museum’s Filipiniana collection, by purposefully purchasing many valuable and rare books written on the Philippines from booksellers all over the world. He never told us of the role he played here and always attributed it solely to Lolo’s obsession for the cause, but from those letters, it’s now clear it was a shared vision between father and his then 29-year old son. Today, that collection has become a national treasure for Filipinos and researchers who wish to know more about our nation’s roots and about who we are as a people. Even at that age, Dad was already a staunch believer in Filipino nationalism and knew that a first-rate Filipiniana library open to the public would provide our intellectuals with the means to discover and create an identity firmly anchored in its past.
Dad was a scholar at heart. In many ways, his love for books represented two things: curiosity and a love for learning on the one hand, and a high reverence for history and legacy on the other. When Dad commissioned the late Raul Rodrigo to write a string of nine books on our family’s business and political history, he set us on the path of rediscovery and pride in our past. I would look forward to hearing his speeches that were always laced with stories that connected the dots from past to present. I will not hesitate to say that this knowledge has made us more conscious of who we are, our values, what we should not be, but more importantly, what we can be. Through it all we have become even more conscious of our footprints and the legacy we leave behind for future leaders who’ll take up the torch after us.
So Dad, you’ve always wanted to build companies that will continue to uplift lives hundreds of years into the future. By definition, those dreams will never be completed in yours, or even my lifetime. We just have to build such that the Lopez vision and values will be passed on from one torchbearer to the next, with a legacy so powerful it compels each one to continue building on that dream. Success means that our work will never be completed but merely handed down and enriched through countless generations of builders not unlike many of the great cathedrals of Europe.
So, returning to that blue moment with Robert under the stars in Batanes, and the answer to his question of whether Tata taught me to chop wood; the complete answer to Robert’s question is: No, Tata never taught me to do that and Ninong Cary and I likely don’t even remember the longhand division he tried so hard to teach us one night more than forty-five years ago. But let me just say…he taught us so much more. About conquering our own mountains, about knowing and loving what really matters in life, and about leaving the world a much better place in the brief time we have on earth.
All these years, Dad, I keep coming back to the words of British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who wrote “The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.”
When everyone thought we had lost it all during the Martial Law years it was possible for you “to rebuild again from worn out tools” to where we are today because your own father left you such a legacy. Likewise, if we lost everything again today, I have no doubt we would passionately build it all up again because you also leave us with nothing less than that heroes legacy.
In speaking this evening I’ve tried to express our thanks as children and grandchildren whose lives were shaped by my dad these last 85 years. But somehow, I know mere words will never do justice. Hans Christian Andersen liked to say that, “Where words fail, music speaks”; and so we thought the ideal way to celebrate Dad’s 85th birthday with all of you would be to highlight his life in music with none other than three of our country’s top international performing artists, some of our most talented Lopez group employees and family members, and our very own ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra.
We hope you all enjoy the show we have for you tonight and we’re honored that all of you are here to celebrate this very important milestone with us. Thank you and good evening.