The author and Fidel Nemenzo: While Paul has been based in the US for years, "there is a bond that can’t be broken between us."
Culture Spotlight

The Fidel Nemenzo I know: Growing up with the recently-appointed UP Chancellor

A friend since childhood recalls jam sessions, Math classes, and kite-flying trips with his fellow Child of Faculty, the recently appointed UP Chancellor — with the Diliman campus as their playground, their world, and universe.
Paul Encarnación | Feb 07 2020

In Fidel Nemenzo’s vision statement for his U.P. Diliman Chancellor application, he mentioned he has devoted his whole life to the university. Fidel is the third generation of distinguished U.P. professors in his family, and he grew up on the University of the Philippines campus, as did a lot of us “campus kids.” We were children of U.P. faculty and staff, and the Diliman campus was our world, our playground, our laboratory.

In the 1960s, the pursuit of academic excellence in U.P. was modeled after institutions of higher learning abroad where many of the faculty were sent off to study on University fellowships. Fidel was actually born in England, where his father, former U.P. President Dr. Francisco Nemenzo, Jr., was doing his Ph.D. at Manchester University. Most of us kids had parents who had obtained their post-graduate degrees abroad, and it seemed that for all of us, we were also expected to go to college, post-grad, and obtain Ph.D.s. Our “titos” and “titas” were Presidents, Deans, Chairmen, Professors, etc. The bar was set high for expectations of us from an early age.

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In the early years, the kids mostly moved in their own circles based on the area that they lived in on campus: Area 14, Area 17, Area 1, 2, 3, etc. We grew up in different areas, and I first really got to know Fidel when we were in U.P. High. We had common interests: running, ping pong, music, math, the outdoors.

Fidel running along the Academic Oval during a race on campus in the late 70s.

Fidel and I were the high school senior ping pong doubles champions, with our younger brothers John and Leonid being the runners up. Similarly, all four of us were on the high school track team. We liked doing thrill-seeking activities like climbing to the top of the Quezon Memorial. We biked all around campus and played frisbee in the Sunken Garden. Fidel, John, Leonid, and my girlfriend Telly were all good guitar players so we spent many hours at each other’s houses playing and singing songs from The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and other acts from the era. Telly and Fidel enjoyed kundimans, too. Other times we would just hang out, thinking idealistic, lofty thoughts and discuss philosophy.

Hanging out at Fidel’s house in Area 1 on U.P. Campus (L-R: Fidel, John Encarnación, Leonid Nemenzo, Ajit Singh Rye II, Paul Encarnación.)

From these sessions I could see that Fidel was foremost a critical thinker. He obviously was also conscious of social issues and activism as a result of his parents’ experiences and background, demonstrating a strong empathy for others. He would always shun dogma, wanting to discover and learn things himself. To this end, he was a voracious reader and learner, and a romantic.

When we started college in 1977, being children of faculty — a distinction we playfully referred to as being “sons of Tarzan” — we got to register early and planned our classes to find common ones we could attend together. Fidel’s father was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, and we would on occasion hang out in his office.

Fidel started out as an Architecture major, while I started out in Math. We were classmates in Math 17 in a “democratization block,” which included a number of students in the Experimental Democratization Students (XDS) program. As far as I can recall, the democratization policy on admissions was an initiative started in the administration of Dr. Onofre D. Corpuz, and continued under Dr. Emanuel V. Soriano. I was amused at how good Fidel was at Math despite spending a lot of his time in class doodling in his notebook and writing poems. He had always been a Math wizard since high school and he was perhaps just bored with the simple concepts in Math 17.

In the later years in college, we got involved in activism, which is how I got involved with my girlfriend Telly Nacpil, who is the sister of Lidy Nacpil, the widow of Lean Alejandro. We were in the Patatag cultural group which Fidel would later join. We sang protest songs in demonstrations as well as in concert venues. The first demonstration I attended was one for asserting academic freedom that Lean Alejandro led. It resulted in us being tear-gassed and truncheoned.

Several years later, in 1984, as a consequence of Fidel having been set back by spending some time in Australia while his father was a visiting professor at Australia National University, as well as shifting degree programs from Architecture to B.S. Math, he wound up being my student in Math 170.1 (Fortran IV Programming). It was during this time that Fidel was shot during a protest rally at the Welcome Rotonda. 

Fidel and I in Baguio during one of the summers we would spend together.

I happened not to be at that particular demonstration. I heard about the shooting on the radio and was so relieved to hear he survived. I visited him at the hospital. I still feel bad about one thing, although one could call it a lesson in integrity. Despite our very close friendship, I gave Fidel a grade of “Incomplete” in my class since he did not finish the course or the exams due to his injury and eventual recuperation period. He never asked me to give him a passing grade, and frankly I never thought it an option. My own father, former Dean José Encarnación, Jr. of the U.P. School of Economics, was a strict disciplinarian. He instilled in us a strong sense of integrity. One thing that Fidel confided in me the last time we talked was that he was most concerned about people who would ask for favors. It is always a slippery slope.

In 1985 after I finished my M.S. Math, I moved to the USA. I would come back to visit every 3 to 5 years and invariably, other than our relatives, it would be Fidel who would be the first to see us. Our conversations would pick up where we left off. We actually did not correspond much during those years. He was busy with his studies, and then his work and his family, and I was similarly preoccupied. But as in brotherhoods, there is a bond that can’t be broken between us. I had spent a lot of time with their family, even spending a summer in Cebu with them where I met and stayed in the home of the senior Professor Francisco Nemenzo—whom Fidel referred to as “Tatay,” the father of Philippine Coral Taxonomy. I have visited the home towns of both Dodong and Princess Nemenzo and saw them as my second family.

During my recent visit to the Philippines in December 2019, we had dinner at Fidel’s house on campus and I asked him why he would want to be Chancellor of U.P. Diliman. I told him that if he so enjoyed teaching and research, he may not be able to do those things anymore if he had to take on the duties of Chancellor. I asked him what vision he wanted to bring to the table. 

Dinner at Fidel’s house in December 2019. (L-R: Telly Encarnación, Lawrence Reodique, Fidel Nemenzo, Dr. Gerardo “Gap” Legaspi, Marivic Raquiza, Paul Encarnación.)

That evening, he simply said it was an option he would like to pursue and thought he could do some good serving in that capacity. Later when I read his vision paper, I was impressed by what he articulated there and thought, by golly, it would be so incredible if he would be given the chance to execute such a plan. As reflected in his vision, Fidel embodies the ideals of the U.P. Now that he’s been selected for this responsibility, l can’t wait to see what he achieves.

 

Paul José Encarnación finished B.S. Math in 1981 and an M.S. Math with specialization in Computer Science in 1985. He moved to the US in 1985 to join Telly Nacpil, also a B.S. Math major, and apply for a Ph.D. program. He got a job at Unisys Corporation as a System and Software Development Engineer, married Nacpil, and wound up dropping the idea of pursuing a doctorate. After 12 years at Unisys, he did two years at a biometric startup company before moving to Oracle Corporation where he would spend the next 22 years. He is now Senior Director in Product Development at Oracle and has two children: Maya, and Paolo. He is also now a grandfather to Sofi.