Tell it to SunStar: Date, death, and dinner

by Msgr. Ramon Aguilos
Photo from Kiko Pangilinan's Instagram account
Photo from Kiko Pangilinan's Instagram account

AUGUST 21, 1983 -- that fateful day, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino reached the MIA tarmac only to be felled by an assassin’s bullet -- where was I? Let me recall.

I was in Sacred Heart Seminary as a formator and teacher. I was a young priest then, barely one year and 13 days old. But the excitement at having reached one year in the ministry was tinged with sadness because our family had just lost our beloved grandfather, Briccio Aguilos Sr. He passed away on August 1, 1983.

I woke up that Sunday morning of August 21 thinking I’d go through the normal game plan -- early morning mass, prayers with my brother priests at the Oratory, hurried breakfast, an outside mass, lunch, siesta, a little recreation, Benediction, dinner, and night prayers to wrap up the day. But I realized the day wasn’t as normal as I thought it was.

First, during the whole morning, TV and radio were abuzz with the news that Ninoy Aquino, after three years of self-imposed exile in the US, was arriving in Manila in the afternoon. So, every now and then, I would sneak into the Fathers’ Rectory to listen to the news on the only TV set in the house.

Second -- and this was even more exciting for me -- I received a call from the Office of the Governor requesting me to celebrate mass at what was then called “Nipa House,” located somewhere near the Provincial Capitol. The name was perhaps an allusion to the “original" Romualdez-owned "Nipa House" that used to be on Real Street before it gave way to two huge edifices, the People’s Center and Sto. Niño Shrine.

I was told that Governor Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez and his family were attending the mass and were hosting a dinner afterward. Having heard that, I could not have been more honored by the invitation. So, with my youngest brother Bobby (then a third-year high school seminarian) and a classmate of his to assist me, I found myself at the venue for the celebration. The affair turned out to be a gathering of alumni of Holy Infant College, a school run by the Religious Sisters of Mercy. Governor Kokoy, said to be a Kindergarten pupil of the said school when it was still administered by the Benedictine Sisters, was the host of the dinner party. It was an elegant affair, I noticed, with everyone dressed up to the nines.

After the mass, I was introduced to the governor, his wife Juliette, and their two sons Philip and -- was it Daniel or Martin? -- I now forget. It was my first time meeting and talking to them in person, actually. Madam Juliette then took hold of the microphone for her “Thank You” remarks. She even singled me out, thanking me for the mass and for the homily -- a gesture so heartwarming.

I settled myself at a table nearby where an ex-seminarian, Leo Giron, was seated. Dinner went on smoothly, so it seemed. Food and drinks flowed. Chit-chats, laughter, mirth, and small talk were the spirits of the evening. And while I was engaged in conversation with my tablemates, I felt a nudge behind me. It was Sr. Monica Tomista, a Benedictine sister, whispering to me, “Father, let’s go home na. There is breaking news that Ninoy Aquino has been shot dead at the MIA tarmac. Kinukulba man ako hine.” I was too absorbed in the excitement of this dinner date that the Benedictine sister’s frightened-sounding remark hardly sank in. Only much later would I realize that the sister's news was a serious matter and was already spreading, however covertly, among the party-goers of the night, and that many were in a hurry to leave. What a downer to an otherwise glitzy and glam social function! I did notice one thing: the good governor, who was earlier seen pacing about nervously, had disappeared (he rushed to his room, I was later told), and I saw some members of his staff in a huddle at one corner. There was a little commotion, although the movement didn’t attract much attention. Not yet.

Just the same, I decided to get ready to leave. I motioned to my brother to ensure that our things were all accounted for and were in place. On my way out, I passed by the area where the governor’s staff members were gathered and inquired from one of them for some more details about the “Ninoy News.” The guy, whose two-way radio set was clinging to his ear almost all the time, could offer me but a few details, if ever. He probably was just acting circumspect, having been instructed, I could surmise, not to make comments on matters of that kind.

While inside the car and riding back to the seminary, I broke the news to my brother. His reaction was something I won’t forget: shock, concern, anger, and sorrow. That surprised me, actually. A lad at 15 already sensing what would cook up in the political landscape after this assassination news? Prodigious! Yet, his reaction turned out to be valid. Like a significant drop in the bucket, it was a sampling of the whole nation’s eventual rage and cry in the ensuing days, weeks, and months.

Upon reaching the seminary, I noticed that the seminary fathers at the rectory were already in a state of confusion. Everyone -- worried, concerned, and bewildered -- was glued to the TV set, awaiting more details about the sensational news. The rest is now history. The days, weeks, months, and years rolled on with Ninoy Aquino’s death as the topic of every conversation, the subject matter of every discussion, the main agendum at every forum, the main dish at every table, the centerpiece at every assembly, and the battle-cry at any protest rally. Needless to say, the tragic event precipitated the bloodless Edsa Revolution which ended on February 25, 1986.

Fast forward to the 21st century. By some strange coincidence, something was happening on February 25, 2012, a day to remember Edsa 1986. While the incumbent governor Jericho Petilla was in Manila joining other government officials for the national commemoration, the remains of the late Governor Kokoy Romualdez, who had died four days earlier (on February 21), were being flown to Tacloban for a few nights of wake before they were flown back to Manila for the funeral. I was with a few other priests at the DZR Airport upon Madam Juliette Romualdez's request. Our role was to give the remains of the former governor a liturgical reception rite. Much later in the afternoon, I asked the late governor’s son Philip where he was on August 21, 1983. Sure enough, he said he was in Leyte at the time. He narrated some details of his stay, even as he also remembered how he and his family were dealing with the tragedy that shook the nation. I don’t recall now if he remembered being in that mass that I celebrated in the late afternoon of that fateful day. But if ever he remembered, I am sure he did not care at all as to who was the celebrant.

That conversation took place on the second floor of the Provincial Capitol where guests paying their last respects to the late former executive of the province were being entertained. About 350 meters away was the "Nipa House," the scene of the dinner that the late governor hosted for the alumni of Holy Infant College 40 years ago, on August 21, 1983.

First, it was Ninoy’s death on August 21, 1983. Then there was the Edsa Revolution on February 25, 1986. On February 25, 2012, the 26th Edsa Revolution anniversary, there I was listening to Governor Kokoy’s son Philip recounting his own August 21, 1983 experience. Sounds like a completed cycle, eh?

I leave you with your own thoughts on the matter. And for the record, I still remember the date August 21, 1983 -- both Ninoy's death and Kokoy's dinner hosting.

***

Msgr. Ramon Aguilos is a parish priest for Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Tacloban City, and he also serves as chairman of the Leyte-Samar Heritage Society.

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