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elmer gozun cato
elmer g cato I WAS waving him goodbye at the end of our Strategic Planning Workshop at the Holiday Inn Resort at Clark Field when I was called in to accompany him. He wanted to go to his favorite Pampanga haunt—Everybody's Café, in San Fernando—for some betute and other Kapampangan dishes he had long been craving for. His aides did not know how to get him there so I ended up in the passenger seat of the Ford Expedition, breathing cloud after cloud of second-hand smoke the man in the front seat was notoriously known for.

From where he was seated, Blas Fajardo Ople, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines, asked me where I was being proposed for my first foreign assignment. I told him I was being groomed as Vice Consul at the Philippine consulate General or as Third Secretary at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York. Unfortunately, our Home Office in Manila had still not decided where exactly to send me although I had this inkling that since I was head of a regional consular office, chances are I would end up in the Consulate General.

In his trademark baritone, he told me: "I think the United Nations will be a good training ground for you." Who was I to dispute what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs just told me? All I could say to him in reply was that just being sent to New York—one of the much sought after posts in the Philippine Foreign Service—would be more than enough for me. Secretary Ople apparently did not forget our conversation. Ten months later, I would find myself in New York as a member of the Philippine Delegation to the United Nations.

I will always remember that trip to Everybody's just as I remember all the other encounters I have had with the man who ironically served in a regime I detested and, in my own little way, helped overthrow. The Martial Law baby that I was, I grew up knowing him as the Secretary of Labor and Employment and later as one of the stalwarts of the ruling Kilusang Bagong Lipunan representing Central Luzon in the Batasang Pambansa. After Edsa, he resurrected as a member of the Constitutional Commission. He later ran successfully for the Senate where he became one of the longest-serving chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. He held that prestigious seat until he was called to serve as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

I never had the chance to serve directly under Secretary Ople. I was already serving my exile at the Regional Consular Office at Clark when he took over the Department of Foreign Affairs from Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona Jr. Before that, the closest I ever made it near the man was during the campaign for the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States.

I would have several close encounters with Secretary Ople during my term as consular officer of his beloved region. I was first formally introduced to him in October 2002 when he dropped by unannounced a day after we moved in to our new offices at Clark. I would see him again the next month when he returned for the Strategic Planning Workshop at the Mimosa Leisure Estate where the Holiday Inn was. In December, he honored us with his presence during the inauguration of our consular office that, to this day, remains the biggest and busiest outside Manila. In February, I stood next to him as he handed out passports to his townmates in Hagonoy during the serbilis project we conducted on the occasion of his 76th birthday. Two months later, I was with him at the Lubao Parish Church for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's annual birthday ritual. There were a number of other encounters with him whenever I get the chance to visit our Home Office in Manila.

It was during those encounters that I got to know more about the man. He was a self-taught individual from a poor family in the fishing town of Hagonoy across the Rio Grande de Pampanga. He fought the Japanese during the last war and was a journalist and labor organizer before joining government. These encounters afforded me the chance to know and appreciate the man who became a father figure we in the Department came to love and respect.

In early November 2003, he came to New York to take part in a conference at the United Nations. We were at the Intercontinental to welcome him that Sunday morning. Later, we heard mass with him at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and then had lunch at the Ambassador's Residence on the Upper East Side. A few days later, we were back at the hotel to see him off. As his van left for the airport, he smiled and waved us goodbye.

That was the last image I would have of Amang. On 14 December 2003, Blas Fajardo Ople entered immortality in a foreign land while on a diplomatic mission for the country. I will always remember Amang and my encounters with him, especially that ride on the Expedition where he expressed his desire to see me at the United Nations. It has been four years since our hands clasped one last time in farewell and I am still here in New York where I continue to hone my skills as a diplomat. The man who sent me here is no more but I will be what he wanted me to be. I will not fail him.

[About the author. Elmer Gozun Cato is a Kapampangan journalist turned diplomat known for his advocacy of responsible and responsive journalism in a media career that spans more than 15 years. He first made a name for himself in 1983 when as a 16-year old college freshman became a cub reporter for the crusading newspaper Ang Pahayagang Malaya during the martial law regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. At 21, he became one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the Philippines when he founded the Angeles Sun in 1988. His journalist experience included stints as correspondent and desk editor in various local, national, regional, and international news organizations, including the Manila Chronicle, the Philippine Daily Globe, Reuters, and GMA News. In 1991, he became one of the first Kapampangan journalists to go overseas when he became a reporter for the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In 1997, he became Executive Editor of the Indonesian Observer in Jakarta. He later published K, the Kapampangan Magazine. In 1998, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) after placing eighth in the Foreign Service Officers Examination. He served in various capacities most prominent of which were as special assistant to two former Secretaries of Foreign Affairs—Domingo L. Siazon Jr. and Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona Jr.; as spokesman and later officer in charge of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement; and later as head of the Regional Consular Office of the DFA in Clark Field. He has been based in New York since 2003 where he serves as Second Secretary with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.]

-Posted: 4:25 AM 12/30/07 | More of this author on eK!