Sixty-four years ago this week, the young Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash in the Philippines. Gen. Carlos Romulo, who was then Philippine Ambassador to the U.S., marked this moment as he stood quietly outside the Philippine Chancery, the flag at half-mast.
Only 49 years old, Magsaysay “had become the foremost symbol of democracy and the struggle for freedom in Asia,” the Washington Post wrote. He was “a tough fighter against communism, a sincere and honest reformer and a fearless crusader against corruption.”
But his greatest accomplishment, the Post wrote, was winning his people’s trust. He was an “unsophisticated popular hero” who created a complaints center in his office and personally spent time trying to solve countless people’s problems. He once abruptly ended an official meeting and drove nearly a hundred miles just to keep a tenant from being illegally evicted.
Arguably, it might not have been the best use of a President’s time, but at a difficult moment in the history of a newly independent nation, he won his people's love and affection.
Some 800 mourners gathered at St. Matthew’s Cathedral a few days later led by Archbishop Patrick O’Doyle. Among them: U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Sen. Millard Tydings, co-author of the Philippine Independence Act, and “high officials and representatives of the entire Free World diplomatic corps in Washington,” the Washington Post reported. The U.S. and the Philippines and “the entire free world have lost a valiant champion of freedom,” U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was on official travel, said in an official statement.
Magsaysay had visited DC on a few occasions in the immediate postwar period, his job titles—first as a member of Philippine Congress and later as Secretary of Defense—marking an ascendant political career. But “his badge of office he wore lightly,” Albon Hailey once wrote, and not surprisingly, he had lighter, lesser known ties to the city. He got a ticket in DC for “standing in a no-standing zone,” for example. He once signed up for a seven-hour dance course at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in downtown DC, according to Manuel F. Martinez.
Magsaysay learned to dance the “slow drag, the fox trot, the waltz and even the rhumba,” Carlos Quirino wrote. (It was to surprise his wife Luz who loved to dance but had stopped dancing soon after they were married, because he didn’t know how, according to Quirino.) The Philippine community in DC held a ball in his honor and “he seemed to have enjoyed the occasion by exercising his newly acquired talent,” Quirino wrote.
That week in March 1957, however, the community and its many friends were in mourning. The Philippine embassy was “flooded with messages of condolence,” the Post wrote. It was, Romulo said, an “unparalleled expression of grief.”
About a year and a half later, in September 1958, Magsaysay’s wife Luz came to DC for a brief visit, together with his daughter, a niece, and a friend. “We’re four girls together,” she told a Washington Post reporter. She smiled.
It had been a difficult period. Her sister died, and then her mother died, some months later. The Philippine mourning period should have been a year for each family member. “I have stopped wearing black now,” she said. “It’s too much.”
She and her companions stayed with their old friends, Gen. Romulo and his family. Vice President and Mrs. Nixon hosted a luncheon for them later that week. She spent time with members of the DC community.
Here where her husband once learned to dance to surprise her, where an "unsophisticated" man found a hidden wellspring of grace, she described her life without him. Some 50 letters arrived each day, she said. Many letters expressed sympathy, others asked for help. She tried to answer them all. “It’s good because you have to occupy yourself,” she said.
Her name is Spanish for light, the Washington Post wrote.
Article courtesy of The Philippines on the Potomac Project (POPDC) which the author describes as “a family project” that began around 2012, exploring traces of Philippine history and culture in the metro Washington DC area. Read about it here.
“Thought School Was Over, 2 Motorists Get Off Light,” The Washington Post, June 30, 1948, p. 10
“Ramon Magsaysay,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, March 18, 1957, p. A14.
Hailey, Albon B., “Free World Mourns Death of Magsaysay,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, March 18, 1957, p. B2.
“Magsaysay Mourners Fill St. Matthew's,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, March 24, 1957, p. B2.
“Magsaysay Widow Plans Manila Museum-Shrine,” By Frances Rowan, The Washington Post and Times Herald, Sep 10, 1958, p. C1.
Carlos Quirino, 1964, Magsaysay of the Philippines (Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Society), p. 42.
Manuel F. Martinez, 2005, Magsaysay the People’s President (Makati: RMJ Development Corporation), p. 160.