“He is a true-blooded Atenista...and now I understand why,” said Kris Aquino Friday night at the Ateneo de Manila’s Church of the Gesú. She was thanking the Jesuit community that represented the academic institution who hosted the memorial service for her brother, former Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. He may not have shared their position on the RH bill, she told the priests in attendance, “but you have been there for him when it truly mattered.”
Indeed, the Ateneo campus in Katipunan being the venue for the necrological rites, and as the place where the Filipino public can personally pay their last respects to Noynoy, seemed to hold great significance to the Aquino sisters Pinky, Viel, Ballsy and Kris. After all, the institution was where their only brother spent much of his young life. And for it to be the last stop before he was finally laid to rest was some sort of a homecoming, a full circle moment.
Noynoy was as true-blooded an Atenista as one can get. He spent 16 years at Ateneo—completing his grade school (1973), high school (1977), and college education (AB Economics in 1981) in the Filipino Catholic and Jesuit institution.
During his years as a public servant, one would have noted how strongly he valued his Atenean roots. There were numerous occasions he visited his alma mater and delivered speeches at graduation rites and special events. More importantly, as the deluge of tributes that came out in the past few days would attest, Noy was known to have proudly espoused the Ignatian spirit of being “a man for others”—an ideal the institution stood for—especially throughout the course of his public service.
But not a lot of people are familiar about Noy’s years in the Quezon City campus.
The young Noynoy
The Aquino siblings grew up in the political limelight amidst a tempestuous period in Philippine history. When Noy, the third child, was born, his father Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was already governor of the province of Tarlac. The political stalwart would eventually get elected senator in 1967 and leader of the Liberal Party in 1968.
In a lighthearted interview with host-comedian Vice Ganda in 2015, Noy recalled that it was his mother, Cory Aquino, who accompanied him when he took the entrance exam in Ateneo. Like any young boy, he said on TV, he was excited about the prospect of meeting a lot of playmates in school, like his mother told him. Noynoy would spend his growing up years in the educational institution and develop lasting friendships and close ties. “Pero parang mabibilang ang oras ng laro,” he recalled to Vice Ganda.
Galland Diaz, who was Noynoy’s classmate from preparatory school to college, noted his friend’s quiet simplicity despite the stature of his family in society and the political arena. “You wouldn’t really notice him, he was just like us,” Diaz recalled in an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 2010. The PCIJ story described the student Noynoy as a “quiet, well-off kid who tried just a little bit harder than the rest to get better grades, or be more successful, or be more honest than the rest.”
Noy graduated from grade school in 1973 and was part of section Xavier. From his batch came the former Central Bank Governor Nestor Espenilla, the actor Alfie Anido, former Senator TG Guingona, Supreme Court Justice Alfredo Caguioa, and the fashion designer Pepito Albert.
High school life
Noynoy’s teenage years were all about keeping a balance between enjoying his young life and making sure he did not cause any embarrassment to the family. When Ninoy got incarcerated following the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, Noynoy only got more cautious about getting into any sort of trouble. Extracurricular activities on Wednesdays were skipped in favor of spending time with his father in prison.
Noynoy was president of the biology club in high school. According to the PCIJ story, he also wanted, along with three other friends—TG Guingona, Rolando Vergel de Dios, and Diaz— to become an Air Force cadet officer.“An officer carries a position of respect and authority,” explained Diaz. “It means you can take command, take full responsibility, take full authority.” Unfortunately, the group of aspiring officers was dissolved because there was just not enough students joining.
One would think Noynoy then must have quite a strong need to know how to physically defend himself. He excelled in a type of Filipino martial art called Sikaran which depended more on the use of one’s feet than one’s hands. “Hindi pa uso ang street fighting nu’n he was engaged in that already. I guess even at that time it was in him to be a fighter,” Diaz told PCIJ.
More revelations from the PCIJ story: he attended soirées and gimmicks like the rest of the boys, wore t-shirts (niknik long sleeved polos for parties), maong (but corduroy for occasions one had to be a little extra) and rubber shoes. But since there was curfew nationwide, Noynoy always had to leave earlier than the rest.
In the high school yearbook, he was referred as the “successor of Ricky Avancena [grandson of President Manuel Quezon] as president of the class… coolest guy with the hottest temper.” The writeup also said he collected late slips, preferred Pepsi to water (of course we all know he eventually shifted to Coke) and “may-ari ng ‘chikot ng bayan.’”
Ateneo was Noynoy’s safe haven, close friend and college batchmate Rene Almendras told an audience of Noy’s former cabinet members and staff at Friday night’s memorial service in Ateneo. “Dito pwede siya maglakad, dito pwede siya makipagbiruan. Dito, hindi siya kinakatakutan. Dito hindi siya nilalayuan,” he said, recalling their university days during the Martial Law years.
In his speech during the Baccalaureate Mass in Ateneo in 2016, Noynoy himself looked back on his college years with fondness. “Pag dumadating ang finals week, dumadami ang nagsisimba sa mga chapel sa Ateneo. Tuwing oral exam sa Philosophy, nariyan pa din ang mga gurong matindi ang poker face. Meron din namang bawat salita mo ay may reaksyon sa mukha nila. Hindi ka tuloy sigurado kung tama o mali ang sinasabi mo,” he said.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who became PNoy’s political nemesis, was actually his Economics professor back in the day. He described the educator GMA as very knowledgeable. Contrary to what some may presume, she wasn’t a terror teacher and she always wore a smile. Noy recalled getting a long reading list during the course of his class under her. During the final exams, they had to answer a question for each book they read during the semester. Noy recalled getting a grade of B+ in Arroyo’s class.
The 70s was an exciting time to be young. Manila was opening up to the world but Martial Law was like a dark cloud hovering over people’s lives. “Sa panahon namin, mahirap isabuhay [ang payong mag-aral kayong mabuti] dahil sa ilalim ng diktaturya, hindi namin sigurado kung may kinabukasan kami,” he told the abovementioned Ateneo class five years ago. “Kapag nagsalita ka [ng laban sa gobyerno], pwede kang makulong, ma-torture o mapatay.”
Almendras recalled having to surreptitiously look for restaurants where he and his friend could safely dine in. Not because Noynoy was picky with food, but because restaurant owners and diners were scared to be in the same room with Ninoy’s son. He remembered Noynoy once telling him, “Para tayong may ketong, lumalayo ang mga tao dahil natatakot sila na mapasali sa atin.”
While Noy may have appeared easygoing in school, he was never complacent and apathetic. He encouraged his fellow students to be politically active. At that time, his father was already a known Marcos opposition. Noynoy missed on the chance to march on his college graduation because he had to leave five days before the ceremony to join his parents and sisters in the United States—they were afraid then-president Ferdinand Marcos might cancel Noy’s exit visa.
Almendras, who would eventually serve as Energy and Foreign Affairs Secretary during PNoy’s presidential term, said these experiences were the reasons his friend is repulsed by abuse of power. “Alam po ni PNoy kung anong pakiramdam, what it is to be helpless, to be powerless. Alam po ni PNoy what it feels to be api.”
The word “wang-wang,” a term popularized by PNoy, was a representation of abuse of power, said Almendras. “Hindi naman po illegal na mag-wang-wang kung talagang pulis ka o nasa pwesto ka. But ang punto ni PNoy, hindi mo kailangang gawin yan. Kahit may kapangyarihan ka, wag mong gawin para abusuhin. Iyan po ang dahilan kung bakit ayaw niya ng wang-wang.”
His years as a student in Ateneo clearly influenced the kind of leadership Noynoy had espoused, said school president Roberto Yap in a message to the university last week. “Despite the ups and downs of his term, he will be remembered as a President who showed our nation and the world how leadership with competence, conscience, compassion, and commitment can bring about a marked difference in the lives of millions of people,” wrote Yap. “He will also be remembered for representing the Philippines with honor and dignity, elevating our country's status on the world stage.”
The Ateneo president recalled a message PNoy left with Ateneo’s graduating class back in 2016, a message that could very well be directed to Filipinos at large. It’s about looking beyond our immediate comfort zones and engaging with the greater world. “Hindi para sa sarili lang ang tuon ng kaalamang nakalap natin dito,” Noy said then. “Down from the hill: kasama, kahalubilo ng ating mga kapwa, upang maging kasangkapan ng Panginoon. Palagi, sa kapwa ang tuon. Sa kalakhang mundo. Dahil tayo ay men and women for others.”