Joe Olbes and the Tamilok Boys

Buddy Gomez

Posted at Mar 02 2016 11:58 PM | Updated as of Mar 03 2016 12:18 AM

A profoundly esteemed and a highly respected gentleman, upright and generous, a genuinely sincere, loving and caring ‘people person’ quietly passed on over a week ago (Feb. 20). He was 103 years old. An extraordinary human being, manager, mentor, son, brother, husband, father and friend.

In the “Dream Maker,” it is said: “Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

Such a one, ’one in millions’ was Jose Maria Olbes y Abello. The admirable and beloved JMO. His footprints are in our hearts!

I am one of his cadres, an acolyte, one among followers of his exemplar. The practice of the joyful, useful and reliable lives, professionally and socially. I like to think that I my own modicum of success will be incomplete without acknowledging JMO’s indelible impact. I proudly claim to be among his beneficiaries.

My quarter-century Ayala career (before government service which was more than adequately shored up by my Ayala experience) was jump-started and guided by JMO when he hired me in Insular Life as Sales Promotion Section Chief in 1960 (from being a management trainee) and then as his Administrative Assistant prior to introducing and endorsing me to Col. Joseph R. McMicking (JRM). I will always cherish the honor of an invitation to celebrate his 100th birthday at the Rockwell Center, 2013, an event I could not have afforded to miss.

JMO was President of the Insular Life at its most precarious of times. The ravages of the Japanese occupation nearly bankrupted the company. Forced to operate and accept ‘Mickey Mouse’ currency which became totally devalued after the WWII, the company had to settle all claims encountered and accumulated during wartime operations as these were declared valid by the liberated government. This was the task assigned to him by Ayala’s legendary visionary, Joseph R. McMicking, whose number one protége JMO was. So much so that JRM tasked JMO to open and run a new insurance company in Barcelona. He brought along Mau Blardony and Vicenting Ayllon to assist him. JMO’s last professional assignment was to take over from JRM the day to day operations of the fabled Sotogrande.

At the time of his demise, Joe Olbes was the oldest living alumnus of De La Salle, having finished his Commerce degree in 1935. One of the very first participants from the Philippines in the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program, he was also a founding member of the Management Association of the Philippines. He served a term as President of the Manila Rotary Club. 


Born in Sorsogon January 27, 1913. Sorsogon High School, class of 1931. His parents were Federico Olbes (b. in Naga, Camarines 1876) and Ana Abello (b. in Manila, 1881). I recall JMO saying that his dad was a schoolmate of Presidents Quezon and Osmena in San Juan de Letran as well as in Santo Tomas. He served as a circuit judge (Juez de Primera Instancia) in the Bicol district under the pre-Commonwealth Jones Law era. On a judicial assignment in Tuguegarao (at a time when the country still had a very scant roster of lawyers and judges) to try a case, he contracted dengue, fatally. 1921. Doña Ana continued to live in Sorsogon until 1971 when she joined her husband in eternity. 

Joe Olbes, very visibly, is of Fil-Hispano Creole stock, with a pair of smiling blue eyes. Political pundits referred to these Filipinos as “Insulares.” They were active participants, leaders and movers in the socio-political life of the nation in patriotic ascent.

Once, on a visit to Sorsogon, accompanying JMO, I witnessed what a loving, doting and dutiful son he was to his mother then already in her 80s. And also to the “kasambahays,” the long-serving domestic household staff and their neighbors some of whom JMO grew up with. With all of them, JMO spoke in fluent Sorsogueno/Bicolnon. It was a pleasant visit for a successful hometown boy returning from the big city. 

And speaking of family and fraternal responsible selflessness, when his younger brother Ramon and wife perished in a plane crash (1962), he took charge, caring for the very young orphans, looking after their needs until each was sufficiently on one’s own. Ramon Olbes was a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio and was the Baron/Captain of the Corps, receiving the Chief of Staff saber when he graduated Class of 1940. He survived Bataan and joined the guerillas in Sorsogon.

I am posting here a portrait of a much younger JMO, ( a doppelganger for the actor David Niven!), drawn by his late wife of 67 years, Amalia “Chibi” Ortigas Olbes. A little sidelight on Mrs. Olbes. She had an overnight stay in Fort Santiago during the Japanese Occupation. She was caught handing some cigarettes over the fence to some American internees. For punishmen,t she was made to write hundreds of times “I am sorry…I will not do it again.” Mrs. Olbes is a daughter of Dona Julia Vargas, who in her lifetime was perhaps the Philippines’ most prominent and generous benefactress/philanthropist of worthy charities, most significant of which was her help in setting up the Quezon Institute. She was an active civic leader and President of the Philippine Tuberculosis Society from 1932 until she passed away in the 1960s.

[Incidental capsule info: Dona Julia Vargas vda. de Ortigas was the wife of Don Francisco Ortigas (b. 1875, Porac, Pampanga), another of President Quezon’s school mates and a very prominent law practitioner during the Jones Law era. The old Ortigas mansion still stands today. It is along Legarda between Mendiola and San Rafael. It has been occupied by the Samson Tech Institute. Immediately after WW II, this huge two-storey residential edifice’s ground level was used as the session hall of the revived Senate. I was a street naif and urchin in the vicinity. I was grade 2 in Mabini Elementary School during “Japanese Time.” Grade 3, Juan Luna Elementary School, 1945-46.]

Joe and Chibi had three boys. Jose Mari predeceased his dad in late December 2014. Then there is Tony, a successful businessman and Eduardo, a sculptor, who resides in Mexico.

Without any qualm of dissent, I can confidently speak for the JMO crowd. Most significant and memorable for all of us who hold JMO in respectful friendship and admiration is the personal bond he engendered among all of us, his executives. There was always that genuine concern for his people and their loved ones. “Mr. Olbes,” which is how I have always addressed him, is truly in his best elements when with people around him. 


That enduring relationship spawned joyful camaraderie that to this day still resonate with mirthful yarns, tall tales and laughter.

Whenever the opportunity--and these happened with regularity over the years--there were unforgettable excursions. A supposed “shark hunting”(?) cruise along outer Manila Bay on a borrowed yacht. A weekend on Talim Island in Laguna Lake. Cagraray island in Albay. Deer hunting and beach camping in Silanguin Cove, along the Zambales coast. Malajog Beach and Blanca Aurora falls in Samar. 

What I recall best and with pride, too, was our visit to my hometown of Calbayog in Samar, crossing and cruising Jibatang River (a bridge had yet to be constructed), roughing it up in cove-like Malajog beach and gamboling beneath the Blanca Aurora waterfalls in, partaking of Waray-waray hospitality. No hotels nor hostels. No inns. It was the summer of 1964 and travel was via PAL’s DC-3 (itself an historical aircraft truly worth remembering). There must have been twenty of us in the party, half were teeners who are now grandparents themselves. Happily no accidents, no illnesses, not even scratches nor allergies sustained and reported.

Etched in our collective memory is most probably the highlight of this happy escapade from civilization. A gustatory encounter with hardly anyone actually tasting the most exotic of Philippine delicacies. That would be an apt description. Mind you, folks, this was a half-century before Anthony Bourdain, the world-circling TV culinary critic, would graphically feature for the world to ponder and see--Tamilok. 

Tamilok is a woodworm, retrieved from inside fallen mangrove trees. It is oyster-like and longish. Call it an elongated oyster. It is actually a mollusk. Except for less than a handful among the Calbayog vacationists, hardly anyone was adventurously intrepid enough to partake of a plateful displayed for temptation. But Tamilok remained the prominent talk of the trip. (Googling it, is suggested. You will learn and understand.) There is hardly ever a reunion of the ‘JMO boys’ of that summer of 1964 when Tamilok is not the subject of happy banter.

All told, working for and with Jose Ma. Olbes was always a learning experience, a continuing education as it were. He shared. He cared. We partook. We celebrate him.

From the “Tamilok boys,” thanks for everything, JMO! Thanks for showing us our world. Thanks for the memories. Goodbye. For now!


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