Renato Corona, Edgar Jopson of the Class of ‘66
SAN FRANCISCO—It’s graduation season in the Philippines.
Throughout the archipelago, hundreds of thousands of young Filipinos are attending ceremonies marking the end of their high school years.
Many of them will listen to their class valedictorian speak, with idealism, excitement and hope about the future, about their responsibility to serve their families, their community and their country.
Now, in most cases, the valedictorian’s words would be forgotten by the time the ceremony ends and the parties begin.
But one high school valedictory speech from nearly 50 years ago resonates today. That’s because the student who gave it took to heart all that talk about doing one’s best and serving one’s country.
On April 30, 1966, Edgar Jopson told his fellow students at the Ateneo High School, “We will not just dream our goal in life without doing anything about it. We shall develop all our talents, and gifts to the fullest, in order to serve you, our neighbor, and our country, to the best of our abilities.”
The young Edgar Jopson, known as Edjop, would live — and die — by those words.
Shortly after giving that speech, Edjop would become a national figure at the age of 22, a beloved leader of the youth movement pushing to reform what he and many others saw as a political system that catered to the rich and powerful. He was named one of the 10 outstanding young men of 1970.
Disgusted by the vulgar display of affluence amid so much poverty, he led students to picket a prominent family’s wedding party that was so shamelessly extravagant the celebration featured a champagne fountain.
Outraged by the burning of barrios by an Ilocos warlord who retaliated against the poor residents for not voting for him, Edjop led a bold mission to rescue the victims and bring them to safety.
When he dared to ask Ferdinand Marcos to put in writing a promise not to run for a third term, the unpopular, hated president snapped, calling him a mere grocer’s son.
And when Marcos later morphed into a brutal dictator with the imposition martial law, Edjop joined the underground movement.
Edgar Jopson, whose parents turned a small sari-sari store in Sampaloc into the first self-service supermarket in the Philippines, could have led a quiet, prosperous, comfortable life.
Instead, the valedictorian of the Ateneo High School Class of ‘66 lived with farmers and workers, in urban poor communities and small barrios, helping organize a grassroots movement against a ruthless regime. He was later captured and tortured. After escaping, he went straight back to his pursuit of social change.
That quest never ended, and he was constantly looking for the best path forward, not for himself, but for the nation as whole.
There were even signs that he grew to question the dogmatism and capacity for violence of the U.G.
As I recall in my book U.G. An Underground Tale, about the life and times of Edjop, he shared with his wife Joy Asuncion the troubling allegations that the U.G. movement was responsible for the bombing of Plaza Miranda.
He was not alone in feeling troubled. Many others would later struggle with a painful irony: that the movement for justice and human rights that people like Edjop helped build during the dark years of dictatorship turned out to have a dark side — a Khmer Rouge-like capacity for cruelty and cold-blooded violence.
Edjop was constantly seeking answers, exploring paths toward a more democratic and more equitable society. He never thought of his own fortune or career. It was always about the Filipino people.
He could have done so much more. But Edgar Jopson ran out of time.
On September 20, 1982, 16 years after he urged his fellow students “to serve our neighbor, and our country, to the best of our abilities,” Edgar Jopson was killed in a military raid in Davao. He was only 34.
Edjop was such a revered figure that despite the different path he took, many Filipinos, including members of the Class of ’66, still consider him a hero.
When he died, his friend, the late poet Freddie Salanga, wrote of Edjop: “You refused to let your ideas fade. … You stayed on in the forest, rooted to the ideals you felt were worth more than all that the good life had to offer. … We may not agree with what you died for. … But one thing we will always be sure of: you died a brave man, a just man and a good man.”
What does this have to do with Chief Justice Renato Corona?
Well, he was a member of the Ateneo high school class of ‘66. I gather he was there when they graduated, and heard Edjop speak.
Did he hear Edjop extol the virtues of service to the nation? Was he affected by Edjop’s words?
Only he can say.
But apparently, Corona did value his high school career – perhaps to the point of tweaking it a tad.
As the excellent reporting done by Rappler shows, the Chief Justice had once claimed in his résumé that he graduated from high school with “silver medal graduation honors.”
In fact, based on the commencement program, in which Edgar Jopson’s name is written prominently as the top student of the Class of ‘66, Corona won an activity silver medal as a member of the science club. That’s certainly something to be proud of.
“But he was not a part of the elite list of those who graduated with honors, contrary to claims in his résumé and the Supreme Court website,” Rappler reported.
The tweaks on Corona’s résumé apparently extended to his grade school record.
To be sure, Corona’s grade school career was fairly impressive. After all, he got an honorable mention for his academic work, and a gold medal for spelling.
Still, these didn’t exactly jibe with a claim that he won a gold medal for academics. (One simply has to ask: Who in the world would include grade school achievements in a résumé?)
But perhaps the inconsistencies were just an honest mistake, just minor errors.
Still, as the Rappler story shows, there sure were a heck of lot of errors and inconsistencies in Corona’s list of academic achievements as shown on the Supreme Court Web site as of early March. (The site has since been revised.)
Certainly, compared to his high school class valedictorian, Corona took a different, more conventional route, like most members of that class. They went to professional schools, acquired advanced degrees and then launched successful careers in business or politics.
Still, Corona’s journey stands out as he also took a road less travelled.
He became the country’s Supreme Court chief justice. In yet another unusual twist, he became the first Supreme Court chief justice to be impeached, getting ensnared in one of the most jaw-dropping corruption scandals in Philippine history.
By now, many of us are probably numb from the barrage of allegations — many of them pretty convincing — of corruption and abuse of power against the nation’s top magistrate.
I’d like to think that his case would serve as a cautionary tale for young Filipinos on the importance of honesty and integrity, especially in public service.
But it’s probably not going to be that simple, not with the cynicism that the impeachment trial, with the fumbles and overstated allegations, has also bred.
I was in Manila a few weeks ago, and got the sense of how some Filipinos believe that while Corona faces many serious questions about his wealth, so do other politicians, including those aligned with President Benigno Aquino.
It’s not a stretch to imagine young Filipinos concluding: “Pare-pareho lang. They’re all the same.” And we can imagine the many valedictorians who have to give a speech before their fellow students struggling with what to say.
I’d like to think and hope they’d be as passionate about wanting to serve their country as the young Edjop was half a century ago — even though his words may not have been that convincing to at least one of his classmates now at the center of a historic trial.
Or maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe Corona did listen to Edjop’s valedictory speech — especially the part about how they should “not just dream our goal in life without doing anything about it.”
For Corona apparently had big goals, and he apparently did something about them.
There was only one problem: he got busted.
On Twitter at @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel
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