Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tribute to a personal hero and mentor

This is my column today.

I am a human resource management person by profession, a teacher by calling, and a writer by accident.

I never really thought of myself as a writer—I actually still don’t to this day. Writing was just something I could do when I was growing up. Until I started cobbling pieces for this column, being a writer wasn’t something that defined who I was. And even despite the fact that I have been writing this column for almost four years now, I still do not self-identify as a writer because I feel that it is something that I haven’t really given as much devotion to compared to, say, teaching or my HRM career.

The way I see it, writing is a craft that requires a certain degree of commitment—a commitment to perfection or at least the quest for it—something that I just don’t have the time or the temperament for. Unlike some friends who can truly lay claim to the title “writer,” I don’t agonize over a misplaced preposition or spend sleepless night searching for the right metaphor to express something. This is not to say though that I don’t value the craft because I do.

At any rate, one question that I am often asked is: How did I get into writing? This question is always mystifying to me because I always get the impression that people actually think that the ability to write is something one is born with. I get the feeling people who ask that question expect me to provide an inventory of the chromosomes I got from my ancestors. Sure I was a co-opted into joining—and becoming editor—of my high school and college papers but the truth is that by no means of the imagination can what I did then be classified as writing. I am aware that there’s not a single “writer” in this world who does not cringe or is tempted to commit self-annihilation when confronted with the stuff one wrote in high school or college. I assure you I am not being facetious and I am being truthful when I say that I produced hideous stuff back then.

There’s actually a story behind how I got into writing; a story that needs to be told now because the man at whose feet I learned the rudiments of real—or serious—writing, the man who inspired me to try to be good at it, the man who took pains to mentor me, even teach me to unlearn bad writing habits, is now gone.

Agustin Gus Arnaiz Sr., the crusading provincial journalist who valiantly championed press freedom in Leyte and Samar for many decades passed away Saturday evening in his hometown of Maasin, Southern Leyte. He was 85.

I was a college sophomore when a couple of my friends and I walked into the offices of The Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Tacloban City to gather some data for a term paper we had to produce for school. At that time, Gus Arnaiz, publisher of The Reporter, was already quite a “legend” in the region. He had just come close to winning a seat in Congress against the powerful Romualdezes, who, incidentally also put him behind bars for writing about rumors around then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. All throughout the Marcos regime he was incarcerated four times and arrested a grand total of 19 times. The Reporter was then the lone beacon of freedom and fearless writing in the whole of Region VIII. In the eyes of a then-neophyte activist, Arnaiz was a giant.

Arnaiz granted our group an interview. To this day, I still do not know what he saw in me or what possessed him to do it but he offered me a job on the spot as associate editor of the weekly paper. I learned later on that the post had been vacant for quite sometime simply because Arnaiz didn’t find anyone he liked well enough. It dawned on me many years later that he wasn’t really looking for an employee—he was on the lookout for someone he could mentor like a son. He paid me full wages for a job that was really part-time as I was still studying then. As if to make up for the hours I was in school, I would accompany him some nights and during some weekends in the long drives he made around Tacloban and the Leyte-Samar area. He was always visiting friends and colleagues who were always more than too happy to host him. Arnaiz was a genius at making conversations. I later on learned this was how he got the various “exclusive” stories that he wrote for the weekly paper. It was from these long nights that I learned how to listen, really listen.

It was on those long, very long drives —sometimes we would be driving for hours, even whole days—that I learned so much about writing and life in general. Arnaiz loved to talk—he was conversant about almost anything— from history to politics, from business to current events—despite the fact that he didn’t finish school. He had to drop out from high school due to poverty. I guess telling stories came naturally for a man who lived a very exciting and fulfilling life. Arnaiz was the classic example of a self-made man. He was a war veteran (he finally received his war veteran benefit from the United States government last November). It was from the man that I learned how to weave stories and tell them.

Arnaiz coaxed me out of my shell. He even maneuvered to put me in the board of the regional association of media people where, at 17 years old, I sat as the youngest director for one term. He taught me how to use a typewriter, edited my work right in front of me, and alas, also taught me how to smoke and drink.

I had to quit working for the weekly paper when I was in senior college to yield to paternal pressure to get a diploma. But my relationship with Arnaiz continued, shifting from mentor-mentee to friends. For many years in the late eighties I continued to write pieces for the weekly paper, stuff that I had to send by snail mail every week from Manila where I was already working.

From him I learned how to write letters. Arnaiz was a man who wrote real letters—he typed even social and personal letters using a formal format and with carbon copies too.

The Reporter eventually folded up last year. Although his children tried to sustain the paper with the same fervor and spirit that Arnaiz breathed into it, I guess some things in this world are just never the same without the moving force driving it.

We all have personal heroes that we look up to; people to whom we owe what we’ve become. It had been ages since I last talked to the man but the years have not diminished the affection and respect I keep for the man who taught me how to write.

Farewell, Gus. Thank you for the many valuable gifts you so selflessly shared with me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was our neighbor in Cogon, Ormoc City. You're right, he was a good conversationalist. And a good man.

Good bye, Sir Gus.