As I write this, I am also reading online news reports and Facebook status updates about DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose body was finally recovered off the coast of Masbate after a 48-hour search. I am reading the reports but I refuse to believe it. I think I speak for the millions of Filipinos when I say “sa kadami-dami ng pulitiko na pwede ninyong kunin, Lord bakit pa si Jess ang kinuha ninyo?” His death really doesn’t make sense.
I first met Mayor Jesse Robredo in the mid-1990s back when I was still working for Senator Roco. Mayor Robredo made it a point to drop by our Senate office whenever he had official business in Manila, and he sort of enjoyed “special status” in our office simply because he was the mayor of the town where Senator Roco hailed from. Jess stood out from all the other city mayors because he looked very young - he was only 29 when he was first elected mayor and I suspect that he grew a mustache precisely to look older than his age.
Henry Ford once said, “you cannot build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” Jess earned a reputation for being one of the country’s most outstanding mayors not out of any “manufactured publicity” (as most politicians today are wont to do) but simply through hard work and dedicated service. People started noticing Mayor Robredo for his fresh and innovative approach to governance, and his consensus-based/participative style of leadership became the template for other LGUs to emulate. In his nineteen years as mayor Naga City won practically all the awards that could be possibly given to LGUs (about 140 awards and citations), and in 2000 Robredo bagged the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. Jess succeeded in curbing illegal gambling (jueteng), prostitution, squatters and illegal drugs in his area and during his watch, Naga City became one of the cleanest and most peaceful cities in the Philippines.
But despite all the achievements it is remarkable how Jess was able to remain humble and self-effacing and accessible. Even as DILG Secretary, he did not go around with a huge retinue of armed bodyguards. A couple of months ago I texted him to ask if I could interview him for my masteral thesis paper and a few hours later he responded to say that he will check with his secretary and schedule the interview at a convenient time.
I recall that back in 1999, when I was still working for then-Congressman Mar Roxas, Jesse Robredo helped us in our sortie to Bicol. Jess, who has then completed his 3 terms as mayor, opted not to run for Congress and instead offered to help organize Bicol for Mar's senatorial run. Our itinerary that day consisted of a symposium in Naga, lunch in Baao and then to Legaspi City where Mar was to judge the Miss Ibalon beauty contest.
Aside from coordinating with local Bicol officials, Jess also borrowed vehicles and recruited local civic groups to escort our convoy. I recall that our lead car, driven by one of Jess's childhood friends, was rather dated (I think it was an old-model Gemini, which was used more commonly as a taxi). Our convoy was cruising on the National Highway from Naga City on the way to Baao when all of a sudden, our lead car veered to the shoulder of the road and halted abruptly. We initially thought the lead car hit a dog or something but then we saw why: natangal ang left front tire ng Gemini at tumalsik ang gulong nito sa gitna ng daan. Our van stopped to see if he needed help, but the lead driver just waved us away as if to say "just go ahead…"
As we proceeded on our trip to Legaspi City, we were breathing a collective sigh of relief that nothing untoward happened. Mar remarked to Jess: "nakakabilib naman yang kababata mo Jess. Tumalsik ang gulong ng sasakyan niya, pero kalmado lang siya, cool and composed. He even had the presence of mind not to over-steer the wheel so as not to make the car spin out of control" (or words to that effect). To which Jess replied: "Wag kayo masyadong bumilib dun! Kaya naman kalmado yun kasi pang-apat na beses na nangyari yun sa kanya. Talagang tumatalsik ang gulong ng kotse niyan once in a while!"
From Baao up until we arrived in Legaspi City, Mar and I couldn't contain our laughter. And even today, as I recollect that special day, I still could not stop myself from smiling. Jesse Robredo truly was a gem of a human being. He was an idealist, reform-oriented and innovative “über-mayor” who remained undaunted by the challenges and setbacks he encountered along the way. But what is more striking for me is that he was able to accomplish all of the reforms in Naga City and DILG without losing his sense of humor, his zest for life and his faith in the goodness of man. In the end, he made it all seem too easy and even fun.
It is said that God moves in mysterious ways and perhaps we will never fathom why he suddenly took Jess from us just when the country most needed him. All I can say is that Jesse Robredo lived a life that was truly well spent, and Filipinos will forever remember him with great esteem and fondness as a good and decent man who did his share for his city and his country.
Dios Mabalos Jess!