Tell it to SunStar: A Conrado de Quiros story

Alenn Nidea
Tell it to SunStar.
Tell it to SunStar.SunStar file photo

The degree to which Conrado de Quiros shaped himself into the public figure he would become is best reflected in the words of those whose lives he profoundly influenced.

“Conrado de Quiros is sui generis, a class of his own. He is not simply a columnist—he is the columnist of our time. For almost three decades he shaped the national discourse and conversation in a way no other journalist did. Reading him daily is not only a personal habit of many Filipinos but a routine of the nation,” wrote Artchil B. Fernandez of the Daily Guardian.

De Quiros “was a force in the society in which he lived—critical, quite undiplomatic, often opposed to (because unconvinced by) popular opinion,” said Rosario Garcellano, a former Inquirer opinion editor.

Francis Pangilinan expressed his hope that another Conrado de Quiros would rise from the new generation of journalists, “to carry on as torchbearer of truth and the for-bearer of righteous indignation and purposeful action.”

These are just snippets of the accolades friends and admirers bestowed upon him upon hearing of his passing. Many more tributes have been penned and conveyed, each more elevated and lofty, all of which he undoubtedly deserved. Of course, his incisive commentaries also earned him a fair share of detractors.

To us, his classmates from Grade 1 at Naga Parochial School through high school at Ateneo de Naga, Conrad and the roughly 30 of us share the nostalgia he wrote about in one of his daily columns regarding growing up in his beloved hometown of Naga City.

We were small children, gathering daily in classrooms, except during breaks when we would eat and play outside. Conrad was among us, consistently staying in the same section with his classmates. Remaining together in one section forged close friendships as we progressed through higher grades, all the way to high school.

Conrad was predominantly quiet and somewhat frail during the initial years of elementary grades, not standing out in class. However, as we entered high school, he began to shine, consistently excelling as we advanced through the years. In our junior year of high school, Fr. James O’Brien, our English teacher, selected him to join the high school student publication, Blue and Gold, appointing him as its editor-in-chief due to his excellence in our English class. On graduation day, he emerged as the top student of the HS batch of 1968 at the Ateneo de Naga High School, Naga City.

The following school year, he attended the Ateneo de Manila University on a full academic scholarship. Graduating as the class valedictorian in high school marked a pivotal moment in Conrad’s academic and professional journey.

During his first-year college semester break, he shared his excitement about a particular English literature course. Reflecting on our junior and senior year classes in high school, where Fr. O’Brien delved into the history of the English language and imparted deep insights into literary criticism, Conrad’s affinity for English courses was unsurprising. He described the literature class in his first college semester as transformative.

Returning to Naga for the school break, he invited me to his home and proudly showcased examples of writing styles he had acquired in his college class. I immediately understood what he meant. Observing his newfound skills in creative writing, we humorously speculated that he could now create original compositions more tantalizing than the risqué literature we secretly shared in high school, undetected by vigilant teachers and the Prefect of Discipline.

Conrad could have easily navigated through college, maintaining his full scholarship. However, fate had different plans.

In 1970, the First Quarter Storm erupted in Manila, marking a period of student activism against government corruption that swiftly spread nationwide. Even schools that were strongholds of students from affluent families in Manila and elsewhere in the country were not exempt from the unrest.

Fr. Raul “Rolly” Bonoan, a small yet agile and resolute Jesuit priest and the dean of Student Affairs at Ateneo de Manila, launched a vigorous campaign to expel the radical students from the campus. Like many scholars of his time, Conrad became involved in student activism, resulting in his expulsion from school.

Years later, it became evident that there was a not so malevolent reason for Fr. Rolly’s campaign against the campus activists that only someone jesuitical could conceive. As June Ragragio, another high school classmate who was at Ateneo de Manila with Conrad, noted, Fr. Rolly actually protected the students from indiscriminate police persecution. The police were ordered to round up the militant students in the fenced-in areas of school campuses, like Ateneo de Manila, for indefinite detention in jails or military barracks. By expelling them, Fr. Rolly allowed these students to find their own hiding places and evade the police.

During those tumultuous times, Conrad became a writer for the school publication and contributed to a left-leaning commercial news magazine. Despite losing his academic scholarship, he transformed adversity into an opportunity. He shifted his focus to writing. June Rag would recount later that Conrad resorted to self-education, borrowing numerous books from the Ateneo school library and dedicating his time to honing his writing skills outside formal classes. This marked the beginning of his enduring passion and career.

He never returned to formal schooling at the university. In the mid-1980s, he began earning a living by contributing articles to popular daily periodicals in Manila. When the political upheaval settled with the imposition of martial law, he secured a formal writing job in a government office. This work not only provided him with financial stability but also served as a powerful platform for expressing his views on social and political issues. Eventually, he found a permanent home for his daily column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, amassing a large following from diverse readers, ranging from the youth to mature and aging admirers.

In the subsequent years, Fr. Rolly Bonoan would be sent by his Jesuit superiors to assess the situation at Ateneo de Naga College. In the 1980s, the school ruefully faced a significant decline. Fr. Rolly was dispatched to Naga City with orders to shut the school down if he deemed it fit. However, witnessing the profound educational impact on the Bicol region, he chose to save it.

Over the years, he expanded and transformed the college, adding courses and new buildings. To those who asked him if Ateneo de Naga would be shuttered, his reply was, “No. In fact, we are adding a graduate school.” With unwavering persistence, he sought funds from Ateneo alumni worldwide. From the brink of extinction, he turned the college into a full-fledged university.

In a remarkable turn of events, with an ironic twist, Conrad, a distinguished personality in mass media at the time, was invited by Fr. Rolly, who was then the rector, to be the speaker at the commencement exercises for the graduating class of Ateneo de Naga. The invitation came a year before the college’s official designation as a university. When Conrad delivered his commencement address, he thanked Fr. Rolly for inviting him to the prestigious event and, with a mischievous grin, he noted to himself, as he later confided, “Surely, Fr. Rolly and I are not strangers to each other.”

Who could have imagined that their paths would intersect once again, unfolding in such captivating circumstances for both, completing a full circle in time; the one-time campus nemesis of student activists, ultimately acknowledging the esteemed guest, his former prey, with a respectful invitation that day, bestowing upon him the responsibility of sharing knowledge and wisdom to his own graduating students.

Indeed, in life, extraordinary things happen with extraordinary people. Such is the alignment of stars for those destined for greatness and enduring memory.

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