With his wife, Gretchen Oppen-Cojuangco, during a yachting trip from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island in the late 1960s.
Culture Spotlight

Danding as a young man: “I could have turned out a spoiled bum and made a mess of my life.”

In an exclusive interview with Rogue in 2014, on the eve of his 79th birthday, Danding Cojuangco spoke to the magazine about living through war, the day his childhood ended, and falling in love with Gretchen Oppen. By NELSON NAVARRO
ANCX | Jun 18 2020

This story first came out in the July 2014 issue of Rogue. ANCX is running it here with permission from the publisher. 

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Growing up in the high summer of American colonial rule, he had it all: social prominence, good looks, the trappings of the good life. Born in Manila on June 10, 1935, Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, Jr. was raised as a third-generation heir to a Filipino-Chinese fortune built before the glorious but failed 1896 revolution and which flourished by leaps and bounds under three flags—Spanish, American, and Filipino. 

In the crucial decade leading to independence in 1946, the Cojuangcos ranked among Central Luzon gentry who had the ear of the colony's "uncrowned king," the mercurial Manuel Luis Quezon. A paternal uncle sat in the National Assembly and Eduardo Sr., Danding's adored father, was elected governor of Tarlac, their home province.

As early as 1938, the Cojuangcos and their partners put up the Philippine Bank of Commerce, the first Filipino private bank not owned or controlled by foreign interests, the Roman Catholic Church, or the government.

In the rough-and-tumble world of Philippine politics, they produced two presidents of the republic—Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, widow of the martyred Ninoy Aquino, and their only son, Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III—and, in between, missed having a third head of state in Danding Cojuangco, who narrowly lost his 1992 bid to succeed Mrs. Aquino, his then-estranged first cousin. She supported General Fidel Ramos, the eventual winner.

During his student days at California State University in San Luis Obispo, where he pursued an Associate in Arts degree in Agriculture. On limited allowance from his mother, Cojuangco "pumped gas and took on odd jobs to make ends meet."

A feud split the family apart in the 1950s and raged fiercely during the Ferdinand Marcos years (1965-1986). Danding supported the late strongman and the Cojuangco-Aquinos bitterly opposed the regime. After the fall of Marcos, this would lead to Danding's forced exile, charges of cronyism, and sequestration of assets. The feuding Cojuangcos would quietly reconcile long into the post-Marcos era in 2007.

Danding would make his own mark in business, not politics, in the coconut industry (United Coconut Producers Bank) and, most notably, with his spectacular 1984 takeover of Spanish-owned San Miguel Corporation, then and now the crown jewel of the Philippine economy and one of Asia's largest food and beverage conglomerates. Under his watch, San Miguel aggressively expanded into power, infrastructure, oil refining, and a stake in Philippine Air Lines. His protege, Ramon S. Ang, now runs the conglomerate.

Looking back, the reclusive captain of industry attributes his success to his family's entrepreneurial spirit and the personal inspiration of his father, Eduardo "Endeng" Cojuangco, Sr.

In a rare interview granted to Rogue in Makati after a high-risk kidney operation that kept him out of the public eye for a few months, Danding says the idea of talking about the man who most influenced his life appealed to him on the eve of his 79th birthday.

"I owe Papa what I am today. He was a strict but loving father who encouraged his children to be independent and to take up agriculture as a career, which I did."

Don Endeng was the youngest of four Jesuit-educated sons of Melecio Cojuangco, the only son of the patriarch Jose ("Inkong Jose"), who served in the revolutionary Malolos Congress and the first American-sponsored Assembly. Melecio's eldest son, Jose ("Don Pepe"), like him an assemblyman, was Cory Aquino's father, followed by Don Antonio, a medical doctor whose son Ramon became the head of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT), and Don Juan, a businessman, who was childless.

Although Danding and his five siblings—Mercedes C. Teodoro, Aurora C. Lagdameo, Isabel C. Suntay, Henry M. Cojuangco, and Manuel M. Cojuangco—were all born and studied in Manila, they spent weekends and vacations on the family farm in Paniqui, Tarlac, a four-hour drive north of Manila.

At the senior prom of Gretchen, where they had their first dance, in the Sky Room of the Jai Alai, 1954. Two years later, on December 23, 1956, the couple married at the San Agustin Church in Intramuros.

The Cojuangco brothers made their Manila homes close to each other in the genteel Malate district then favored by the Manila rich and foreign community. Endeng's residence was located across from the art deco Syquia Apartments, just a few meters away from historic Malate Church and a long block from seafront Dewey Boulevard (later renamed Roxas) with its famous sunset on Manila Bay. 

Paniqui was the ancestral seat of the first Jose Cojuangco, scion of an immigrant from Fujian, China who married a Filipina woman in the late 19th century. The last of the Tarlac towns before the railroad's northern terminus, Paniqui prospered along the tracks of the Manila-Dagupan line of the British-financed Manila Railroad Company in the 1890s.

The Cojuangcos emerged among the region's biggest rice and sugar planters and, from the 1920s, operated a profitable sugar mill before they organized the Philippine Bank of Commerce in the nation's capital. Some two decades later, Don Pepe would acquire the Spanish-owned Hacienda Luisita, an enormous 6,453-hectare sugar estate, and embroil, first, the family, and, indeed, six presidencies from Marcos to Aquino III in a long-running controversy that raged into the 21st century. 

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UNLIKE his largely Manila-based brothers, Don Endeng was a man of the soil who introduced his children to farming and to the love of horses. Danding, with his farm employees and joint venture partners, now manages and operates extensive agricultural plantations in Negros Occidental and other provinces and runs a sprawling horse farm west of Sydney, Australia where he breeds champions.

"My father had an Australian stallion," Danding says of his father's passion for the sport of kings. “He bred horses in our farm in Sta. Rosa, Nueva Ecija. He taught all of us how to ride." Fourth-generation Cojuangcos have taken up the sport, with some competing in recent Olympics equestrian events.

In the idyllic years before World War II, politics was farthest from Don Endeng’s mind. This was the preserve of Don Pepe, who also headed the family bank. Don Endeng married Josephine Murphy of Baguio, who was half-Irish and half-Spanish. Her father was a former US soldier and one of the engineers who built the scenic Kennon Road in the Cordillera Mountains. He settled in Baguio, the American hill station and the colony's summer capital.

Family legend has it that the couple first met in Paris in the 1920s where the Cojuangcos and Murphys traveled separately on their Grand Tour of the Old Continent but somehow ended up being acquainted with each other.

Back in the Philippines, the besotted bachelor made a habit of driving up to the City of Pines just to see Josephine, one of the city's prettiest girls. She operated the soda fountain in a movie theater on Session Road that her father owned. The Murphys were not enthused, partly because they considered their daughter too young for marriage. Not to be deterred, the couple staged a bungled elopement that saw Mr. Murphy in hot pursuit down Kennon Road. He eventually relented and the couple were wed in the Ermita (The Hermitage), the chapel on the Cojuangco farm in Paniqui. 

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CAPPING the family's charmed existence in the pre-war period was Don Endeng's election as Tarlac governor in November 1941, on the eve of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which pushed the United States into war with Japan. Within a month, Japanese forces entered Manila.

"My father never took office," Danding recalls. "He did not want to serve under the Japanese conquerors. We spent the next three years of the occupation in hiding, moving house every four months. That's why I went to so many schools when I was a young boy—San Beda, La Salle, St. Louis, Sta. Ana Parochial, even La Concordia, a school for girls.” School or politics were furthest from the young boy's mind. “I wanted to be a pilot, an air force pilot," he says of his earliest dreams. "I loved speed. I wanted to race cars."

A 19-year-old Danding Cojuangco, standing beside his Jaguar XK-I20 Coupe, in Manila, 1955.

After the war, the Cojuangcos resumed their normal lives in Manila and Paniqui. Don Endeng briefly took up politics again, unsuccessfully running for senator in 1946 under the Liberal Party of Manuel Roxas who was elected first president of the newly independent nation. He was soon caught up in business projects, mainly plywood and paper manufacturing and a logging concession in Quezon province. In March 1950, he died of kidney failure at age 49.

"It was the day my childhood ended," Danding says. "Papa died a few days before my high school graduation and I was the only one in my class who cried during the ceremonies." He was 15 and it took time for him to realize he had become the head of a family with a widowed mother and five younger siblings, all barely out of childhood.

What did he learn in those dark days between the innocence of youth and the harsh realities of manhood?

“If not for my father's sudden death," he says, “I could have turned out a spoiled bum and probably made a mess of my life. I was able to cope because he had taught me how to work hard and, above all, to treat people fairly. You can't succeed if you don't work well with others and share your blessings. It's important that those who work with you feel they are involved in the company and you care about their welfare."

Some who've known Danding well through the years say he has always practiced Don Endeng's paternalistic work ethic. He takes great pride in being called his father's son.

Bringing Don Endeng's remains from Manila for burial in Paniqui made Danding realize, he says, how much his father had affected so many lives and how well-loved he was by common people.

"We brought him on the train and straight to the Ermita," he recalls. A big crowd joined the march, many barefoot and without shoes. He was close to the poor at the height of the Huk rebellion of the 1950s in Central Luzon, including Tarlac, when landowners were supposed to be enemies of the peasants."

Eighteen years later, Danding would be elected provincial governor and, unlike his father, served in office with gusto. Two years later, in 1969, he became congressman of his Tarlac district by a landslide vote. 

This was to be Danding's last time to seek public office before his failed attempt to win the presidency. During the martial law years, he was made Central Luzon or Region III chairman of the ruling Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (KBL), but his name was not on the ballot and he was not a member of parliament.

Back in 1950 after he assumed his father's role, Danding's priority was to get on with his studies as fast as possible and to relieve his mother of the heavy burden of providing for the family.

"My father left a lot of projects unfinished," he says. "There was our floundering Interwood Plywood and Veneer Corporation. We had a lot of debts to pay off."

His college record was to be spotty and brief. He first enrolled at the La Salle College in a commerce course but shifted to the University of the Philippines in Los Baños to take up agriculture as his father would have wished. Out went the childhood dream of becoming an airplane pilot or a car racer.

He wanted to study abroad and went off to California State College (now California State Polytechnic University) in San Luis Obispo for a two-year Associate in Arts course to learn as much about agriculture as he could in a hurry. On limited allowance, he pumped gas and took on odd jobs to make ends meet.

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BUT before he left for California, he had a man-to-man talk with his Future father-in-law, Ernesto Oppen, a Negros sugar planter. "Would you accept me as your son-in-law even if I have no college degree?"

“One day in Paniqui. a Senate President named Ferdinand Marcos asked me to ride with him in his car. I never met Marcos before then. I didn't know he even existed."

Happily, Mr. Oppen said yes. 

Danding at 19 was a handsome youth and striking look-alike of Elvis Presley, then the world's reigning teen idol. But he had no taste for the fast and glamorous life that could have been his. He simply wanted to settle down after setting eyes on Gretchen Oppen, whom he first noticed at a ballet performance when she danced with his sisters Mercedes and Aurora. Love would bloom not too long after when the German-Spanish mestiza was only 16 and, like Danding's mother at that tender age, a great beauty in the making.

The spread that opened the Rogue exclusive on Danding in July 2014.

"I wasn't going to prolong the chase for Gretchen," he says. “I knew she was the one and that, after two years, I would marry her.” In the meantime, Gretchen was packed off to her mother's beloved boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland along the Lac Léman. She was just as miserable and lonely as he was in San Luis Obispo, an obscure Spanish coastal town tucked halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Back in Manila in 1956, they could hardly wait to tie the knot in a grand wedding at San Agustin Church, Intramuros. Marriage and four children (Marcos, Maria Christina, Maria Luisa, and Carlos) came in rapid succession. A full dozen grandchildren would follow over the years. Business was to be the main business of Danding's life. "In two years, I repaid my father's debts and turned over the business to my mother," he says. "I wanted my siblings to also have a hand in it like I did."

Danding Cojuangco was "made" before he turned 50. He patiently but systematically carved out his personal niche in business, culminating with the headline-making acquisition of San Miguel, although some say well short of the grand prize of the nation's presidency itself. But otherwise sharp political instincts, he says with a wide grin, was something he did not mind having in his arsenal.