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MANILA, Philippines - Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse M. Robredo, a multi-awarded local executive who left corporate life for public service, had always been a man in a hurry. Raised by a highly competitive father, he had broken a lot of records throughout his schooling, notching an armful of degrees along the way; then accomplishing so much more in such short periods, in a political career distinguished both for its integrity and passion for reform. And on Saturday, Jesse Robredo was hurrying home to Naga, scuttling advice to take a commercial flight in order to ride a small chartered plane to be with his family. In the end, this habit of hurrying cost him his life—and the nation, one of its best sons.
Appointed DILG secretary by President Aquino in 2010, Robredo, 54, was one of the most prominent figures among a rising generation of local officials becoming known on the national stage. His performance in Naga, where in 1988 he was elected mayor at the age of 29 – then the youngest city mayor in the Philippines – brought him national as well as international recognition.
Robredo was born on May 27, 1958, in Naga City. He is a second-generation Filipino-Chinese, and the third of five children of Jose Chan Robredo Sr. and Marcelina Manalastas.
He served the city for an unprecedented six 3-year terms, DILG records note, in 18 years, transforming Naga into the Bicol region’s premier city.
In 1996 he was named one of the Philippines’ Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) as well as one of Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) in the world. Two years later, at the age of 38, he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service.
Asiaweek Magazine called Naga one of Asia's Most Improved Cities, and credited Robredo with bringing dynamism and innovation to public service, the local bureaucracy, and community concerns from housing to public health matters.
Sterling academic record
Robredo was an Edward Mason Fellow and a graduate of Masters in Public Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the DILG says on its website.
He earned a degree in Industrial Management Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from De La Salle University, and then an MBA from the University of the Philippines.
After his graduation from DLSU, it seemed Robredo was on track for the corporate life, joining San Miguel Corporation's Magnolia division. But then he returned to Naga City in 1986, and was convinced to sign on as Program Director of the Bicol River Basin Development Program. Here he developed his taste and passion for public service, and two years later he ran for mayor.
His fellow local officials elected Robredo to lead the League of Cities of the Philippines in 1995. “He was also elected chairman of the Regional Development Council, the regional planning and coordinative body of Bicol's six provinces and seven cities, from 1992-98. Since 1995, he also chairs the Metro Naga Development Council,” the DILG says on its website.
“A trustee of Synergeia Foundation, a national advocacy group for education governance reforms, Robredo is a member of the Liberal Party of the Philippines and a prime mover behind the Kaya Natin!, a national movement that seeks to bring genuine change and ethical leadership in the country.”
As may be gleaned from Robredo’s biography by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation when he was named a Laureate of Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize in 2000, the future DILG secretary’s early years bore features that may well have prepared him for his future task as DILG chief.
The Robredos were relatively comfortable, thanks to the enterprising spirit of Jose Sr. and Marcelina, and lived in a compound that was near the commercial district, but also, a slum area. “As a boy, Robredo became streetwise and, having made friends with children from both sides of the tracks, got to know how both the relatively well-to-do and the very poor lived,” said the bio in the Magsaysay Awards.
Jose was rendered blind at age 39 by retinitis. He was described as the “family disciplinarian but his children always understood why he was very strict with them.” Such respect for his father lies behind Jesse Robredo’s clean lifestyle: he “neither smokes nor drinks, and has never tried.”
The Robredo children were raised to be very competitive in academic performance, which apparently accounted for Jesse Robredo’s remarkable record both as a student and later in his private and public careers.
“From both his parents,” said the Magsaysay Foundation bio, “Robredo learned the virtues of caring for others and frugality and the value of a modest lifestyle. From his father in particular he learned that protecting the integrity and honor of one's family is of highest importance, and the children were expected to contribute their share in doing that.”
Robredo studied at the Naga Parochial School.
Math teacher Carmen Ojeda, described as like a second mother to him, is the one Robredo appreciated most, as she “encouraged students to outdo themselves.”
It is said that she often expressed hope her student “would someday make a name for himself. Years later, when he was mulling a run for the mayorship of Naga, Robredo visited her and asked her what she thought of his chances. She replied that she wasn't sure, but that she would be glad to help him.”
‘Man for others’
Robredo entered high school in 1970 at Ateneo de Naga, further honing the discipline and passion for excellence instilled by his father.
"At Ateneo," the RM Awards bio quoted him saying, "I learned to deal with people and I learned to deal with the external environment." But, added the bio, “it was not until after he had left Ateneo that he began to appreciate fully its motto of shaping ‘men and women for others.’"
Two Ateneo de Naga priests---father confessor Fr. Jack Phelan and Fr. James O'Brien---instilled in students, including Robredo, a deep love for Bicol.
The political turmoil in the early 70s served as backdrop for Robredo’s high school years. When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. “Robredo remembers the day the Prefect of Discipline called all the students to an assembly and warned them against getting involved in anti-government activities, lest they expose the school to the risk of closure,” said the RM bio.“
Although Robredo himself was never drawn to activism, he was neither ignorant of, nor indifferent to, political issues. His father was a sympathizer of the Liberal Party, which at the time was the opposition party, and openly expressed a dislike for martial law. Jose Robredo had always encouraged his children to speak their minds and, at mealtimes when everyone was required to be present, he encouraged lively discussions including politics.”
A clutch of degrees
In college, Robredo wanted to be an engineer, excelling in science and math. Though he was accepted at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, he chose De La Salle University, which enjoyed a good reputation for engineering courses.
“It was the intellectual challenge Robredo liked most about De La Salle. He also found time for sports and played basketball with the engineering school's intramural team. But he shunned parties and nights out with his peers, although he allowed himself an occasional movie. He preferred to stay home to study or to watch television,” according to the RM bio.
Robredo earned two bachelor of science degrees at DLSU in six years, for mechanical engineering and industrial management engineering.
He quickly got a job at San Miguel Corp. and eventually followed his boss who was transferred to Magnolia, the ice cream division, where, at age 26, he met an early challenge at fighting corruption and carrying out reforms.
Amid reports of warehouse pilferage and a questioned promo contest, Robredo cleaned up the plant's warehousing system “by improving the use of resources, cutting down on overtime, and improving productivity.”
But such determination and skill in charting and enforcing reforms would apparently serve merely as a preparation for much bigger challenges in effecting authentic, pro-people change when he later decided to leave private work for public service.
Some of those who followed his career and compared his winning ways to Ramon Magsaysay, the man honored by the awards bestowed on Robredo 12 years ago, could not help but note the remarkable timing of Robredo's date with destiny in the Masbate Sea last Saturday: August is the RM Awards month, when all laureates from around Asia are introduced and then are honored in gala rites on August 31, coinciding with Magsaysay’s birthday. And, Magsaysay himself died in a spectacular plane crash on Mount Manunggal 55 years ago, stunning a nation that adored him.
Robredo’s own accident evokes memories of that similar national tragedy, a seeming reminder that for those who wish to serve the people, there is no waiting around for opportunities to do so. Every deadline is “yesterday” and every mission urgent.