Noted educator and legislator Helena Benitez was only five years old when Philippine Women’s University (PWU) was founded by her parents in 1919.
Benitez was the eldest of three children of illustrious educators Conrado Benitez (the first Filipino dean of the University of the Philippines College of Liberal Arts) and Francisca Tirona-Benitez.
The latter, with six other Filipino women teachers, founded the Philippine Women’s College, the first school for women in the Philippines, later known as PWU.
Benitez was heavily identified with education as handed down by her parents for their key roles in founding the PWU. She outlived 10 Philippine leaders. Amazingly, she remained lucid up until her last breath.
She managed the spiral staircase of Mira Nila in Quezon City, the family’s ancestral home that has been declared a heritage site by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
She astounded everyone with her indefatigable energy. She was going to the parlor regularly for her thick hair and her nails. She never regretted not getting married.
She continued attending meetings and conventions as board chairman of PWU, was a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, chairman emeritus of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, adviser to the National Council of Women in the Philippines, founding president of the Philippine Home Economics Association, which she started in 1948.
When Benitez turned 98, she led guests and four generations of the Benitez family in a tree-planting ceremony at the Orchard Golf and Country Club in Dasmariñas, Cavite.
Two years later, she was honored as a centenarian. A mass celebrated by Manila Archbishop Jose Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle took place at Mira Nila, followed by a culinary party. The event was attended by the Benitez family, as well as prominent personalities that included former first lady Imelda Marcos.
On July 14, 2016, Benitez passed away at the age of 102 years.
Last March, lawyer Rosario “Chito” Calixto Chavez, president of the PWU Alumni Association (2019-2022), brought up the idea of organizing a presentation to raise funds for the ongoing scholarship program, with Sabrina “Sab” Villaflor, a fellow board member and music graduate of PWU.
Chavez convened the board, who decided to hold a musical as a tribute to Benitez on June 27, her birthday.
Aptly titled “Tita Helen,” as the latter was fondly called by Philwomenians, the musical will touch on important stages in the life of Benitez as a youth, educator, legislator, environmentalist and diplomat.
With Chavez as playwright, “Tita Helen: A Musicale on Her Life, Philosophies and Aspirations” will be interpreted through a compilation of different songs and dances performed by PWU alumni.
“It was not surprising how Tita Helen exceeded all boundaries to find her place in a world far different from women, who at that time were taking on a special role at home,” Chavez told ABS-CBN News.
“Tita Helen was an icon in PWU. Her home was PWU."
Benitez was also a senator from 1967 to 1972, as she authored laws on the environment and sustainable development way before they even became national issues.
In March 2015, the House of Representatives paid tribute to Benitez in a special session held in celebration of March as Women’s Month. The resolution commended her for her dynamic role in uplifting the status of women in the Philippines.
Benitez was recognized as a woman of many firsts, including first Filipina chair of the UN Commission of the Status of Women, first Filipina and first woman president of the government council of the United Nations Environment Program; founder of the Bayanihan National Folk Dance Company; and the first Filipina to be given the Presidential Award of the Order of Sikatuna, Rank of Datu.
Moreover, Benitez was cited for her contribution to education, women empowerment and preservation of the environment.
As an educator, Benitez believed that it is not enough to equip the students with skills and knowledge in school. “Developing a sense of belonging through an understanding of one’s self, heritage, culture and environment is important to succeed,” Chavez explained. “All these can only be achieved through shared responsibilities.”
For Chavez, Benitez served as her inspiration in life and whom she considered as an epitome of a true leader, her measure of success.
Meanwhile, Villaflor was tasked to be in charge of the project, as producer and musical director, although she expressed her frustration of not being able to fulfill her plan in organizing a PWU orchestra.
She worked as musical director for the late Nolyn Cabahug, musical arranger and pianist for Cocoy Laurel and John Lesaca. She also has a band known as Rhythm Passion.
“It was therefore not difficult for her to mobilize her production team,” Chavez said of Villaflor.
Audio engineer is Aji Manalo and Rhoel Thaddeus Mangulabnan is video/creative director.
Villaflor also managed to have some of the songs musically arranged by known artists specifically for this project, like “Gaano Kita Kamahal” by Homer Flores, and “Around the World” by Willie Rebaño, a former JASMS student now based in Malaysia performing with a jazz group. Villaflor was the musical arranger for “Dahil Sa ‘Yo” and “Ikaw.”
The story will be narrated by PWU-AA first vice president Erlynn Bernardez Campos, a former Bayanihan dancer and Miss Philippines International.
“Considering this was the first attempt of the board to come up with a virtual musical production under the new normal, everybody had to learn everything the hard way,” Chavez said.
“From working on the concept of the show to reducing this to a script, relying on all performers to do their own recording while dealing with various devices and technology.
“Finally, completing the project within just two months, making the video available for review and release one week before the intended showing in June 27.”
Also performing are the Bayanihan Dance Company, Indayog Gong Ensemble, JMD (Junior Middle Division) Glee Club, PWU JASMS (Jose Abad Santos Memorial School) Rondalla.
The board members of the PWU-AA 2019-2022 keep the faith that through “Tita Helen: A Musicale on Her Life, Philosophies and Aspirations,” they will be able to inspire others to carry on the tradition of excellence PWU has been known for.
“This project is also to pave the way for a much-needed support to PWU’s ongoing scholarship program intended to help boost the enrollment which was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chavez said.
The PWU Alumni Association is inviting the PWU community to watch "Tita Helen" on June 27 (9 a.m. in Manila, Malaysia and Singapore),
2 a.m. (UK) and 3 a.m. (Austria) and on June 26 (4 p.m. Hawaii, 6 p.m. Pacific) for free on Zoom.