WE said our farewells to Vicente “Ting” Paterno this week. He went off at the age of 89 to his just reward, a destination that we are all on our way to in our own time to find our just desserts.
Paterno was a singular man. His life was an examined life, the way Socrates counseled when he said an unexamined life was a virtually useless one. He was measured in words and in deeds. He speaks in his autobiography of how one should connect the dots from the past to the present, not just forward from the present. Simply because it will not be reflective, wise or knowledgeable enough without the inputs from the past. He cites Steve Jobs for the dots analogy who probably should have cited Socrates.
Paterno followed that pattern of examination every step of the way. He always had a vision of what he wanted to do, where he would fit and how it would be done. And he worked at it from his early engineering career, to his teaching stints at various universities. Along the way he went from student to teacher to entrepreneur and then on to big business. He had ingrained moral certainties that he was true to all his life. He had a sensitivity for people, giving them their due in respect, understanding and fellowship. Yet when necessary he would in his deliberate and factual way voice his opinion, contrary as it may be to the majority around, or take a stand, extraordinary and unusual and daring as it could be in contrast to the crowd. He was his own man and nobody else’s.
The spectrum of Paterno’s life as the eldest son of his parents, born in Quiapo and out of high school before the war, followed by wartime deprivation and accommodation of the new and harsher realities that World War II brought on this country extends to his college education, his graduate studies and his full participation in Philippine business as well as in government service. In all of these stages, he gave his best and it was high achievement that he was rewarded with.
His vision encompassed his country, which he saw geographically and philosophically. He traveled the Philippines from Luzon to Mindanao in the course of his work and judged the climate and potentials in each region as he met its people and shared their interests. He had a particular attraction for Mindanao, our legendary land of promise. He strove to make Mindanao fulfill it. As a businessman and as a government official, particularly when in the Senate, he worked for Mindanao’s progress.
Paterno wore authority lightly though he accepted responsibility seriously. He was modest and circumspect in demeanor, be it as a top executive in the business sector or as a high official in a government agency. He was always correctly dressed, without extravagance or showiness, a matter to him of good manners. In a crowd he stood out for his dignity and gentlemanly ways. Always understated and never quite one of the boys, he nevertheless compelled attention and elicited cooperation from his co-workers or employees. In all government offices he headed, he managed to get the staff and the rank and file to do things the way they should be done without resorting to histrionics or holier-than-thou statements. The man was genuine and transparent and true to his mission. His management style attracted people to give their best, enough to astonish themselves with their own accomplishments following his example. Enough to think well of their peers and to work as a team looking out for each other to successfully arrive at their goals.
In the heady days of the Filipinization of Meralco, then the biggest Filipino business corporation, he, earning one of the highest salaries of a professional, never succumbed to materialism in terms of fancy cars, flashy clothes, luxury travel or conspicuous consumption. So obvious in others in his station, so absent in him.
Yet he was no stick-in-the-mud or a joyless striver. He knew how to indulge in leisure, appreciate the arts, catch up with his reading, play golf, become a cyber expert in the early days of the Internet, hang out with friends. It was not uncommon that he could express a sense of humor or laugh at himself. He alluded to his many experiences as learning scenarios where he came away older and wiser. He was a person you could rely on and many came to know so and entrust him with their interests, or activities. He was part of numerous business and civic boards at different stages of his career and from there had a wide circle of disparate people for friends.
As a leader, he was in effect a moral whistleblower in national life participating in the public discourse of what is right and wrong in our society and proposing morally perceptive solutions. He followed his principles.
He will be missed for the moral ascendancy that he had, for the solidity of his work, his commitment to his country, all of which he put above wealth, popularity and comfort.
He will be remembered as a moral compass.