By Milwida M. Guevara
Jesse Robredo’s “tsinelas” (slippers) that are on display at the “Museo ni Jesse Robredo” are white and gray. The slippers that he wore were not yellow. They were not Havaianas but were of the cheap kind. Knowing him even for just a bit, I know that Mayor Jesse would have been comfortable wearing slippers of any color and make. He was a man for all people, and for all seasons.
I was part of the throng that flocked to the inauguration of his museum last Friday. It was also to give honor to the man who gave meaning to good governance by living it.
Jesse’s room in Naga City Hall was replicated in the museum. There was a simple rectangular table where the Mayor sat at the head and people who had business with him were seated along the two sides. He listened to the person on his right and then to the person seated on his left. It was as if he was a priest hearing confession. It looked like that the Mayor was playing musical chairs with his constituents because they kept changing their seats to move forward. Mayor Jesse showed no sign of impatience while listening to each one. He gave them his undivided attention. For most of them, they were happy just to have the ears of the Mayor. But he offered them more…. he asked what help they needed and the help they expected. It was very Jesse. He did not tell people what to do. Instead, he encouraged them to think of how they would like to live their lives.
His trophies and medals are well preserved in the museum. When he was alive, they merely occupied a space in his office. HIs medals were not even framed. For me, it sent a strong signal that he did not live to gain honors. For him, he was just doing his job to make public service “better than the best.” He was totally detached from the need for recognition and adulation. His picture did not appear on tarps. He was uncomfortable when people asked him to pose for to selfies. To hide his embarrassment, he constantly said “one, two, three, click.” He has no sense of entitlement and queued up to get an ID to enter a building. When he became DILG Secretary, he simply introduced himself as “Jesse.”
The last room in the museum is dedicated to Jesse as a loving father to his three daughters and a devoted partner of VP Leni. I was totally taken by his letters to his eldest, Aika. He interspersed drawings with written words to tell her how much he missed her and loved her.
His family came first. There was no way for us to invite Jesse during the periodical examinations of his daughters, even it meant foregoing a trip with us to the United States. He saw to it that he was home to take charge of their review. When he was Secretary, review for Jillian had to be done long distance via his cell phone. Her voice served as the ringtone of his phone.
He kept his family life sacred and separate from his public life. I never met VP Leni through all the years of our association with Jesse. VP Leni recalls though that she used to bring “pinangat” as Jesse’s Christmas gift for the Synergeia’s staff. She never came up to the office and left our precious present with the guard.
The Museum elegantly captures the milestones in the life of Mayor Jesse…. his boyhood, his academic life, his career in government. But I am certain, that for many people like me, we have our own museums of Jesse in our hearts. I have a snapshot of him rushing to the Naga city airport to see me off because I missed seeing him in his office earlier. In my mind, I have a photograph of him donating the prize he received from Metro Bank Foundation to Synergeia. I have a mental recording of his phone call on that eventual night in Rizal park . I will forever remember him as the boyish Mayor who went from Aparri to Jolo to mentor Mayors and Governors together with their Local Boards. He asked them to measure learning performance and invest on programs so that every child can become “marunong at mabuting tao” (intelligent and good).
For municipal mayors, Jesse stood for performance rather than political patronage. For Naga residents, he was the leader of “Maogmang lugar” (happy place). For ordinary citizens, he convinced them that they deserve transparency, accountability, and efficiency from their government. For Chingkel, he was the Mayor who insisted they take the train in Washington instead of paying US$25.00 for a taxi cab (even if they got lost along the way). For many of us, he was the best President we never had.
Tears still well in my eyes when I remember Jesse. His passing away took our dream of living in a country where all citizens are respected and given dignity. But I take heart from what he wrote Aika. “Do not waste your time crying.” Jesse has shown us how to live a life with meaning and with honor. We have been so blessed that he walked with us all the way.