IN 1970, as the vice rector for student affairs and dean of the College of Law of the University of Santo Tomas, Andres R. Narvasa, in a decision, declared me an “undesirable student” and therefore ineligible for enrolment in the UST Graduate School. Not eligible to enrol again, I was denied the editorship of The Varsitarian, the school paper of Asia’s oldest university.
In 1970, I had just graduated from the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters with a degree of Bachelor of Literature, major in journalism, minor in economics, magna cum laude. I went to UST on a four-year full scholarship, courtesy of the Lacson Foundation managed by my professor, Julie Yap Daza. How could an honor graduate and scholar be undesirable?
“You will never become editor-in-chief because of your ideas,” my economics professor told me bluntly. He sat in the panel that chose ‘V’ editors.
The plum went to a girl who it turned out was a closet communist and/or activist. When the Pope visited Manila in 1970, The Varsitarian of the Royal Pontifical University of Santo Tomas came out with a lampoon ridiculing the ruler of more than 400 million Catholics. The girl editor and her entire staff were fired. In my case, I got a private audience with the same Pope during that visit for my work as a greenhorn reporter. What a twist of fate.
In my second year, I was a reporter of the Varsitarian. In my third year, I became the news editor in which capacity I converted The Varsitarian from a monthly into a weekly plus a monthly. In my fourth year, I became the managing editor, having lost my bid for editor-in-chief. I thought that by enrolling in the graduate school, I could compete again for the editorship of The Varsitarian with a good chance of making it, since the competition by that time had diminished. Denied the chance at editorship a second time on a technicality, I decided to begin my career in journalism—as a radio newswriter in the morning and a business reporter in the afternoon. I realized there were bigger things to conquer outside the four walls of an Ivory Tower.
I would meet Dean Narvasa later in my life, he as the general counsel of the Agrava Board that looked into the August 21, 1983 assassination of opposition leader of Benigno S. Aquino Jr and I as senior correspondent of Asiaweek, the Hongkong-based weekly newsmagazine of Time Warner, Inc., publisher of Time Magazine which Asiaweek originally wanted to kill in Asia. I would also cover Dean Narvasa as one of the longest-serving chief justices of the Supreme Court, seven years, from December 8, 1991 to November 30, 1998. President Corazon Aquino appointed Narvasa twice, first as associate justice (April 10, 1986), and later, as chief magistrate.
Narvasa was called the Grey Dean by Time and Asiaweek for his strands of copper hair, his baritone voice, his tall stature, his near-perfect demeanor. He was always nattily dressed and impeccable in his thoughts and manners. He finished law at UST in 1951 and placed second in the bar the same year with a grade of 91.6. He is probably the last great bar topnotcher of UST, with UP and Ateneo alternating as providing the bar topnotchers year after year after that.
I reminded Narvasa about his decision to oust me from UST way back in 1970. He had a scant recollection of that incident and replied with a wry smile: “You cannot put a good man down.” Indeed, today’s failures could be tomorrow’s great blessings.
Narvasa died on Thursday evening, October 31, 2013, in his sleep in his suburban home, of pneumonia. He was 84.
Former President Joseph Estrada credits Narvasa for winning his electoral protest before the Supreme Court in 1969 against Braulio Sto. Domingo for the closely contested mayorship of San Juan. His baritone voice, court manners, his brilliance won the day for Erap. The mayorship led to the presidency in June 1998 with Narvasa, the chief justice, swearing his client in. “With Narvasa, I would never have been mayor and later president,” says Erap. As for me, I am grateful to the Grey Dean for launching my professional career in journalism.
Acting Chief Justice Presbiterio Velasco issued a statement extolling Narvasa which was eloquent for its substance yet lack of details. Velasco said: “As associate justice, he penned decisions with clarity and substance. As chief justice, he led the Court by example, displaying integrity and wisdom, and serving as a model for justices and judges to emulate.”
Velasco said Narvasa served as “agent of change” by “ensuring speedy justice for litigants by instituting reforms in court procedures and constantly evaluating the court machinery to see how it could be improved.”
Narvasa made reality the Philippine Judicial Academy. PJA trains judges and justices.
To me, Narvasa’s greatest contribution to law was being general counsel of the Agrava Fact-Finding Board. He assembled all the pictures and films taken by photographers and tv cameraman on board the ill-fated China Airlines plane that carried Ninoy to his death noon of August 21, 1983. This was the height of Ferdinand Marcos’s power as a dictator. It was not easy to displease him.
From the thousands of clips, Narvasa painstakingly produced a pictorial narrative of the assassination to make a conclusion: Ninoy was killed by a single bullet at the back of his head, fired by a military man behind him and a little above him just before landing on the ground from the stairs of the plane. That killer was Rogelio Moreno, a Constabulary man.
The Fact-Finding Board was split, on whether to implicate then Armed Forces Chief General Fabian Ver. The chairwoman, retired Justice Corazon Agrava, also a bar topnotcher, refused to snare Ver as one of the main killers, the murder being a conspiracy. She told me there was no evidence to implicate the dreaded AFP chief.
Ver resigned but didn’t go to jail. His wealth was intact. He died under mysterious circumstances in Jakarta. A poisoning victim? Well, that’s another mystery, just like the Aquino assassination still is today.
In the meantime, with Ninoy’s assassination, the Aquino family secured two presidencies totaling 12 years and four months. Noynoy, the second Aquino president, has a chance to make their family’s legacy to the country truly a great one.