By Milwida M. Guevara
We were half-asleep when Mayor Robredo came to the pre-boarding gate to take a very early morning flight to Sulu. He told us that he took a bus from Naga. I noted though that he looked fresh from a shower. Out of curiosity, I asked him how he squeezed taking a bath into his journey. Huwag mo nang itanong.” (You need not ask). I surmised that he may have stopped by at a hotel to freshen up. It was only recently that VP Leni told me that while on travel, he used to shower in the wash room of gasoline stations for a minimal fee.
Upon reaching Sulu, I hesitated to use the bathroom because it looked slimy. But it did not bother him while I kvetched all day long about the lack of comfortable facilities. At dinnertime, we proceeded to the runway which was transformed into rows of food kiosks. We were served roasted chicken and rice sans fork and spoon.
A basin filled with water was placed on the table where we were expected to clean our hands while eating. I was about to lose my appetite when I saw Mayor Jesse alternating between dipping his hand into the basin and feasting on a chicken leg.
Since I was terribly sea sick, he volunteered to go to Siasi, an island in Sulu. “I will go where you cannot go.” With Willie Prilles in tow, he took the boat from Zamboanga and slept all the way. The only thing he remembered was waking up to the music of the welcoming local band.
And he kept his promise by going to towns where I could not go to inspire Mayors and their Local school Boards to take a proactive role in delivering basic education. He took the bus, small boats, and small planes.
His only request was to go back home in time to prepare his daughters for their periodical examinations.
He did not want to be fussed over. He sat with the secretariat or with the rest of the participants during workshops. Thus ended our practice of having presidential tables. He always introduced himself to Mr. SyCip “Si Jesse po, Mr. SyCip”, never expecting people to remember his name. He queued up patiently to get a pass and submit his ID at the Ateneo where we held office. He never introduced himself as a Mayor to demand a special treatment. This habit stayed with him even when he became a DILG Secretary. My niece once related that he lined up in a telephone office and waited for his turn.
He had a limited number of checkered shirts which we tried to increase by gifting him a shirt on his birthdays. We saw them being worn over and over again: the blue, the yellow and the pink shirt. Simple luxuries excited him like having a bath tub or a connection to the internet in his hotel room when we travelled abroad. He wore the same tie and probably had only one suit. He preferred to take the train from the airport instead of paying for a cab. Sometimes, he lost his way, and laughed at his silly mistakes.
I took great pride in a Washington Conference that was called to catalyze an initiative for mayors to take a co-pilot seat in delivering basic education. While the American Mayors were just thinking of it, our own Mayor Jesse had already done it. So, while I was building his image up before the organizers, Mayor Jesse came breezing into the lobby wearing shorts and slippers. “Is that your Mayor?” they asked. I wanted to hide under the table. But he more than made up for that fiasco by wowing them with his vision and his solid record on governance.
The poor, children and marginalized are at the center of Mayor Jesse’s heart. He had no pecking order. Never mind if he was in a Cabinet meeting. He slipped out quietly to meet the barangay captains from Taraka. He assured them he would visit them in Lanao regardless of danger. “I am not afraid. Sagot ako ni Kap” (The barangay captain is in full command.)
On the day when he was laid to rest, we had a brief squabble with the Office of the President. We were asked to vacate our seats to give way to the Cabinet members. At first, we held our grounds asserting that we were there as early as 3:00 a.m.. I looked up and imagined Jesse grinning from ear to ear telling me “Heto ka na naman with your feeling of entitlement.” We then stood up and offered our seats. This is one great legacy of Jesse. No entitlement.