ON March 17, 1957, the plane carrying president Ramon Magsaysay and 25 others en route to Manila from Cebu crashed on Mount Manunggal in Cebu, killing everyone on board except a Philippines Herald reporter named Nestor Mata. He was 31. On April 12, 2018, Mata died at 92, after spending the last 60 years as a political columnist on various newspapers.
He belonged to a vanishing breed of Filipino journalists, the most notable among whom include the essayist, author and historian Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, 95; the National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose, 93; the columnist, editor and author Amando Doronila, 90; and the essayist, short story writer, editor and author Juan T. Gatbonton, 90.
On Monday evening, a group of friends paid tribute to the departed at necrological services at St. Peter’s Memorial Chapel on Commonwealth Avenue, Quezon City. Sionil Jose, an old friend, and former Press Secretary Alice Colet Villadolid, a journalist whose late husband Oscar had been Mata’s bosom friend all his life, paid high tribute to the departed as a journalist, patriot and friend. Former President Fidel V. Ramos, whom Nestor first met when he covered the Korean war where Ramos fought as a young soldier, sent a message, which Nestor’s son Jan read. I spoke of our friendship which began when I became a newspaperman.
An edited version of my tribute follows:
I carelessly and tactlessly missed Nestor’s 92nd birthday last January 16, and was looking forward to making up for it on his next birthday, and his other birthdays, until he turns 100 and beyond. But this was not to be. I had the most humiliating shock of my life when Jan called me up this morning to inform me of Nestor’s passing. What? Nestor gone? And I didn’t know anything about it? I just couldn’t believe it. I could barely forgive myself.
Since March 17, 1957 when he walked away from death in that plane crash that took the life of his beloved President and 24 others traveling with him, I had always looked at Nestor Mata as indestructible— as one who could last forever. I could not see him going like any of the rest of us. This was, of course, an illusion. Even Lazarus whom Jesus loved eventually passed away long after the Lord had called him to rise from his grave. Because he could not stop for Death, Death kindly stopped for him, I thought, remembering Emily Dickinson’s famous poem.
I had just graduated from high school when I first heard of Nestor Mata’s name. I had joined the long queue of grief-stricken Filipinos who paid their last respects to the remains of the late President Magsaysay in Malacañang. But even as everyone spoke of “The Guy,” I was particularly fascinated with the yet untold story of the one who came back. I did not meet him then; we would meet and become colleagues and friends years later.
A friendship begins
This happened in 1964, when I was assigned to cover the Department of Foreign Affairs for Agence France Presse (French news agency). It was my first journalistic assignment, and I found myself the youngest on the beat, which was then, as now, a beat for senior reporters. Nestor was the most senior reporter for the Herald, followed by his kumpadre Oscar Villadolid of the Manila Daily Bulletin, and Amando Doronila of the Daily Mirror. For the Times, there was Carolina “Bobby” Malay, before she went to Paris for further studies at the Sorbonne, succeeded by D. Y. Caparas, who eventually became information attaché in Kuala Lumpur, and for the Chronicle Alberto Alfaro, who eventually ended up running a Filipino paper in the US, Francisco “Kiko” de Leon, and Amante Paredes, who both fathered a new breed of journalists.
It was a tightly knit group. Nestor, Oscar and Doronila were our seniors, and they guided us, their juniors, without making us feel we needed any on-the-job training. Particularly solicitous were Nestor and Oscar, the inseparable duo whom some of us jocosely called Katzenjammer kids, from the US comic strip of the same title. We walked the beat together, spoke to the Foreign Secretary, DFA officials and visiting dignitaries together, then on our own separately swiped classified files from open shelves and drawers, and tried to scoop each other the next day without any hard feelings.
Colleagues and competitors
As a wire service journalist, I was not in direct competition with any of those who wrote for newspapers. My real competitors were the crack journalists from the other wires—Vic Maliwanag of United Press International, Carl Zimmerman of Associated Press, and Mike Marabut and Joselito Katigbak of Reuters. Nestor, Oscar and Doro therefore felt free to share with me things they would otherwise not share with their competitors. Being the Benjamin in the group had its advantages— they treated me as their younger brother.
At the end of the day at DFA, Nestor, Oscar, Bert Alfaro, Kiko de Leon or Amante Paredes and I would walk back, in good weather, from “Padre Faura” (the popular name for the Foreign Office as Quai d’Orsay is for the French ministry of foreign affairs) to our respective offices in Intramuros, listening to Nestor and Oscar as we trudged along. Those were the days when newspapermen did not drive BMWs, and we had no foreboding traffic would one day become a total nightmare. Upon reaching my office at the old Chronicle building, next to the old Central Bank building and across the Manila Cathedral, I would sit down to write my stories, but I would soon be interrupted by a telephone call.
A sounding board
This would be Nestor. He would read to me his column for the next day, and ask me what I thought about it. This was always a test of my honesty, but this was probably where I was initiated into the art of diplomacy. Our friendship blossomed without my having to pull any punches. I did not mind being the sounding board for his columns, but after his kumpadre Oscar left the Bulletin to become the public relations chief of San Miguel Corp., the food conglomerate, I was invited to take his place at the paper, and therefore became Nestor’s competitor of sorts. After a few weeks, my editor, “Judge” Felix Gonzalez, who was known to be the toughest editor in town, asked me to write a column on foreign affairs.
The regular afternoon “column preview” stopped, but Nestor and I bonded and worked together as much as we could and gave the Foreign Secretary and his officers as much work as they could handle. On a daily basis, we exposed the most sensitive government secrets, and at press conferences, we asked the most difficult questions. We covered several foreign secretaries—Salvador P. Lopez, a former newspaperman; Mauro Mendez, a former newspaperman (he died in office, “killed by the press,” according to some); Narciso Ramos, a former newspaperman; and Carlos P. Romulo, the quintessential former newspaperman—until I was appointed to the Cabinet in 1969.
The consummate journalist
Nestor continued to write, and I continued to read him as did so many others. From 1972, when the Herald was shut down by martial law, until 1986, he wrote for the Daily Express; then from 1986 to 1999, for the Manila Standard; and from 1999 until he wrote “30,” for Malaya Business Insight, whose owner/publisher Amado “Jake” Macasaet, another old friend, died in January at 81. Nestor remained the consummate journalist, checking every fact before he uses it. He knew that the journalist’s pen could be used as a broadsword to cut down one’s pet peeves and “enemies”—if one had enemies; but while Nestor may have used his pen to comfort the afflicted, he never used it, to my knowledge, to afflict a specific target.
Upon my appointment as Press Secretary and Minister of Public Information, and especially after the proclamation of martial law in 1972, he would honor me with an occasional visit and we would sit down for a game of chess. He was a strong chess player, possibly in the class of FIDE grandmaster Florencio Campomanes, but he never pressed his advantage. Neither would he throw his game away just to make me feel good; he would work his way toward a draw, so we could shake hands and look forward to our next chess joust.
Bel canto at Myther’s
My two consecutive terms in the Senate cut so much into our meetings, and we would bond together again after I left the Senate, and we were once again both journalists. At Myther’s and Friends in Malate, when the ever-gallant host Myther Bunag of happy memory was still around, we would meet on Thursdays for lunch and private talk. Nestor, wearing his signature French cap and his elegant casual jacket, would sit there, with our schoolmate and friend Jullie Daza or another friend on one side, and the painter-tenor-stage actor Alan Cosio on another, and with Alan fill the room with an Italian aria or a kundiman to recharge flagging spirits. He was an angel of a man, as the poet Jose Garcia Villa once put it, and our conversation would turn to the arts, philosophy, theology and life.
We did share some deep secrets though. On one occasion, when the media was agog over the question of who masterminded the 1983 assassination of the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, and why his widow Cory, who became President from 1986 to 1992, and his son PNoy, who became president from 2010 to 2016, never bothered to find out the truth about it, Nestor confessed to me that Ninoy, whom he first met when they both covered the Korean war and who had remained a close friend until his death, had shared with him a deep secret, on the sole condition that he would not write about it. He kept his promise to Ninoy, but he felt he could share it with friends, who would respect the original caveat attached to it. And he did, apparently not just with me, but with his son Jan, and possibly others close to him.
According to Jan, Nestor left an unfinished memoir of 300 pages, which his heirs should now decide whether or not, or when to publish. We shall then see whether or not this would contain Ninoy’s undisclosed secret. Nestor wrote tons of political prose during his lifetime, and a memoir should complete his written works. But for me the most important work he ever wrote was his life. It was an exceptional and unrepeatable life. Even if all he had ever done was simply to fill our Thursday afternoons with song and inspiring conversation, he would already have done more than enough. But he did so much more than that.
Given God’s grace to live a second life after that tragic Mount Manunggal plane crash, he chose to live that second life again as a journalist, and to live it with the highest honor and the highest excellence. This was a great blessing for which we can only thank our all powerful and merciful God, and pray that as we say farewell to our dearly beloved friend, Our Lord will send us a few more of his kind for these dark and troubled times.
IN MEMORIAM. Maria Linda Olaguer-Montayre, author of A Nation Unborn, and known to many for her lifelong advocacy of moral reform and social change, died in the peace of our Lord on Friday, April 13. Her remains will lie in state at St. Peter’s Chapels on Quezon Boulevard, Quezon City until 10 a.m. today (Wednesday) and will be transferred to be Christ the King at Green Meadows until Saturday. We invite the pious reader to say a prayer for the repose of her soul.