Reblog : Popo Lotilla’s Vow of Poverty by Benjamin Pimentel

Prof Popo Lotilla in an international conference. I have no doubt that he has kept true to the saying, "a public office is a public trust."

[ Note from Noel : Just so there’s no mistake, the subject of this reblog is an actual, living person.  A few antecedent facts : the writer, Mr Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel, is a legendary editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, in itself an icon of student journalism.  He wrote a column in the online Inquirer version about another Collegian editor, former Energy Sec. Popo Lotilla.  Even without my personal connection with him, his column would’ve been remarkable enough, as you will read below, kind reader.  But I was fortunate enough to have served under Prof. Popo during his term as Collegian ed. (as a newswriter), enrolled in one of his classes during a forgettable stint at his law school, and lived a few weeks in the Narra Residence Hall, another iconic UP institution (and in whose FB page the column was also reblogged).  So there.  Just to illustrate to you how ridiculously remarkable he is, have you heard of any cabinet member who DIDN’T own a car, or even a TV set?  I can confirm this, because… well, because!  This column is a bit dated, and many of you have probably read this, but I reiterate that Prof Popo is a remarkable individual, although he may have forgotten about little old me.  Doesn’t matter, may people like him continue to serve in government !  PS. Thanks Boying for the reblog! ]

For some unexplained reason, Raphael Lotilla preferred the path of frugality.

He taught at the UP College of Law and was already serving as university vice president for public affairs in the early 1990s when he chose to continue to live at Narra Residence Hall, the senior dorm notorious for bad ventilation, leaky bathrooms and poorly-lit corridors and rooms.

After more than 20 years in government, Raphael “Popo” Lotilla announced recently that he was leaving.

“I would like to end my vow of poverty and all the ancillary vows that come with it,” he told reporters.

I chuckled when I read that. I’ve heard him talk about leaving government for more than two decades. He had considered going into business or returning to the place many of us always thought he would spend most of his career: academia, specifically UP Diliman.

With his departure, the Arroyo government lost even more of its already diminished credibility.

Still, I was glad Popo has moved on. And I suspect many of his other close friends also did.

We first met in 1983 when he won the editorship of the Philippine Collegian and I joined his staff as a section editor. A few months after his term began, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, triggering the events that eventually led to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. The assassination also led to the first and only crisis in our friendship so far.

Faced with reports that Aquino allegedly had been killed by one of the soldiers sent to escort him from the plane, Popo and other Collegian editors argued heatedly over how to present the story. Being a reckless campus hothead, I was among those who pushed for a more aggressive headline, while Popo calmly pushed for a more even-handed approach.

Nearly a quarter of century later I humbly concede : Yes, Popo, “Reports Conflict on Aquino Slay” was a more journalistically-sound headline for that story.

We’ve kept in touch through the years even after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, he frequently made San Francisco one of his stops in his travels so we could meet and catch up – and so he can engage in one of his vices: looking for antique maps of the Philippines. We once embarked on a half day expedition from Menlo Park to downtown San Francisco, going from one antique shop to another.

It was great to see him emerge as a national figure over the past 20 years, first as a NEDA official and later as energy secretary. But it also was sometimes tough to watch him associated with controversial administrations. To put it bluntly, it was not always cool to see him in the company of politicos accused of rigging elections and ripping off taxpayers.

But there was one thing about Popo’s career that I and many of his friends took comfort, even pride, in: It always has been crystal clear that he never enriched himself while serving in government.

How could anyone think otherwise about a guy who doesn’t own a house, doesn’t have a car, and as the Inquirer reported, doesn’t even have a TV set, making him eligible to become one of Meralco’s lifeline customers, those who use less that 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month.

Just to be clear, Popo’s no cheapskate. Eating out with him has often meant having an argument at the end of the meal over who should pick up the bill: He always insists on paying. His frugal ways are also striking for someone who comes from a landed family in Sibalom, Antique. Like most children of elite families, he learned to play music, of course. Not just any kind of music, mind you. Popo plays the harp.

From Narra Residence Hall, Popo later moved to an apartment room near UP’s Stud Farm. It was not exactly a fancy bachelor’s pad, but we often joked that he privately took pride in being able to say that he lived near the Stud Farm

A friend of ours, Susan Villanueva, also one of Popo’s former students and is now an attorney with Villaraza Law, once visited him at his apartment with her husband, Joey Ochave. “I remember the spartan (read empty) atmosphere of his place and an open balikbayan box in the middle of the living space. The small dining room had a water feature: the roof had leaks so water ran down the walls. Seeing his living space, it dawned on me that Popo may have moved out of Narra but you could not remove Narra from Popo.”

In fact, at one point, Popo’s Spartan lifestyle and passion for the law and public service inspired many of his former students and colleagues at the UP College of Law (including Susan and Joey) to consider embracing their own personal vows of poverty.

“We were a group of young lawyers who were inspired by Popo to join the academe and to serve,” Susan said in an e-mail. “Somehow, without at all being preachy and through sheer example, Popo made us believe and want to change the way things were through our abilities and expertise as lawyers. “

The group included former defense secretary Ruben Carranza and other prominent attorneys such as Teddy Te, Tony LaVina and Meilou Sereno.

“All of us graduated at the top of our class. Most of us were in the top law firms or had lucrative private practices. Yet, we wanted to take the road less traveled,” Susan continued. “…I would have left Villaraza Law and taught and done policy work full time. The idea was to make UP, through the UP Law Center, a premier policy center that could provide expert advice to government on matters ranging from intellectual property, law of the sea, trade, human rights, international law, and environment… Imagine a public policy center that had in-house expertise, beholden to no private interests that could help shape government policy.”

The group had expected Popo to lead them down that road as dean of the College of Law. But he lost his bid for the deanship. Many of his former students were disheartened. Some of them changed career plans. Susan Villanueva called his defeat “one of the seminal events in the lives of so many people.”

“Had Popo been appointed, I would have also taken the vow of poverty he had taken. I can’t believe now why I was even prepared to make that sacrifice but that time was different. It was a time for possibilities. We all felt then that a Popo deanship would have been a turning point in UP Law’s history, the golden age. There was a critical mass that could be led by Popo who was primus inter pares. Someone we all respected who could lead us to make the change happen.”

In April, Popo and I had dinner with a carafe of red wine at the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach district. We were there to celebrate my decision to leave the San Francisco Chronicle after 14 years, for a new gig at Stanford University. I didn’t have a clue then that he would also be making a major career move in a few months.

“Sorry, I missed you, Mara and the kids on your recent visit,” he emailed me recently, referring to my recent visit to Manila with my family. “But I think we will have more opportunities to see each other now that I am out of full-time public service.”

Name the time and place, Popo, and Ill have a bottle of red wine ready. Time for new adventures, buddy.

(published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, Feb 15, 2008)