A NOTED author once wrote that a man has to reckon with not just one but three deaths.
The first, he said, is when his body ceases to function. The second is when he is put to his grave. The third is when, at some time in the future, his name is spoken for the last time–a reference to the time when he and his good deeds are totally forgotten by an ungrateful people.
There is no “third death” to great men who, to paraphrase a part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Psalm of Life, made their lives sublime and who, in death, left behind their “footprints on the sands of time.”
One such great man, to my mind, was the late senator, Blas F. Ople, whose epic rise to fame and power from his humble origins evolved into a living legend that transmitted the lesson to the youth that poverty is not an impediment to success.
We are observing Ople’s 12th death anniversarry next Monday, Dec. 14. but this is not his “third death” for as long as the Ople legend lives. Even in death, he stood tall in the esteem of his people for his larger-than-life contributions to the nation.
Ople was flying to Bahrain for an international conference after attending a meeting in Japan when he suffered a heart attack aboard his plane over Taiwan. The pilot made an emergency landing in Taipei but Ople died on his arrival at a hospital.
A pall of gloom hung over the entire nation when news of his death was announced on radio and television. A day later, Manila’s newspapers carried the tragic news in headlines as paeans about Ople flowed from the lips of his peers in government, from the pen of his writer-friends and from the hearts of his legions of fans and admirers.
They called him a “national treasure,” an “exemplary statesman,” a “genuine nationalist,” an “outstanding public servant,” a “gentleman of the highest order,” an “intellectual giant,” an “accomplished writer and journalist,” a “great scholar,” and a “true friend.”
Self-taught intellectual giant
Ople started his public career as a newspaperman. Without any formal study in journalism, he passed with flying colors an instant rewrite test for editor given by the Daily Mirror, sister publication of The Manila Times. He was hired on the spot by the big boss, the fire-eating Manolo Villareal.
Ople’s stint as a journalist was serendipitous because it was at the Daily Mirror where his writing talent was discovered and from where he was tapped by the late President Ramon Magsaysay to beef up his Palace team of young and brilliant assistants to jump-start his reelection campaign.
Unfortunately, Magsaysay died in a plane crash on Mt. Manunggal in Cebu. In March 1957, a few months before the next national elections.
Ople’s first major government post was as secretary of labor to which he was appointed in 1965 years before martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos. He also held the positions of senator, Senate president, member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution and finally the republic’s Foreign Secretary.
In all positions, he approached his tasks with a goal, vision and purpose.
He transformed the Department of Labor and Employment from a minor to a major arm of government. Concerned over the rising unemployment rate, he reversed the “no brain drain” policy and launched the overseas employment program. He called it stupid to keep our talents and skilled workers in the country when there were no available jobs.
Overseas employment program
The overseas employment program, which he called his greatest legacy to the nation, has given jobs to about 10 million Filipinos comprising about one-tenth of the entire national population of 100 million. Dollar remittances from these workers shored up the national economy in times of global financial crises. He authored the Labor Code to update labor laws to conform to the realities of the times.
He gave shape to the National Labor Commissions, a non-adversarial adjudicatory machinery, that sought to reconcile the claims of speedy dispute settlement with the claims of due process and human rights.
He held the distinction of being the first Filipino to head the International Labor Organization. While doing the full job as labor secretary, he also acted as the main speech writer of President Marcos. He wrote the widely acclaimed speech delivered by Marcos before the joint session of the US Congress during his state visit to that country.
Ople was in the political wilderness with the end of the Marcos regime. But he was back in government service when he was appointed by President Cory Aquino as member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.
He was elected to the Senate in the 1992 national elections and reelected in the 1998 poll. A year later, he was elected Senate president. He quickly impressed his colleagues with his intellectual depth and range as well with his timely interventions during debates to earn the reputation variously as the “sage” or “resident intellectual” of the Senate.
Foreign relations expert
Ople consistently chaired the Senate foreign relations committee, steering to approval no less than 37 international and bilateral treaties.
He successfully sponsored the Senate ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines that sought to strengthen the security alliance between the two countries and bolster their existing Mutual Defence Treaty.
As foreign secretary, he took efforts to steer the country to a vangard position in the global war against terrorism. He advocated public and economic policy, initiated passport reforms and ordered diplomatic personnel posted abroad to look after the welfare and safety of overseas and filipino workers.
Ople was highly respected for his erudition, derived from a regimen of constant reading and writing, but he never wore it on his sleeve. He was admired for his humility and loved for his humanity.
Former Ambassador Jose Lino Guerrero wrote the following lines in a fitting tribute to Ople:
“He listens, and one is flattered by such attention. He asks questions, and one is challenged to think. He comments, and one is amazed by the broad landscape of his mind.”
Fred Rosario is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist. He served as press officer of Ople as labor secretary, senator and foreign secretary.