Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III

‘Roly-poly’ digs ROTC,
gigs, debating teacher

IN THE SUMMER of 1977, four young students graduating from the Ateneo de Manila high school applied for the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, hoping to become Air Force cadet officers when they start their first year of college in the Ateneo University.

College graduation picture of Noynoy taken from the Ateneo yearbook (The Aegis 1981)

The fact that they wanted to become military cadet officers was in itself unusual; at that time, military training for male students was compulsory, and most students avoided the training like the plague by pulling strings or calling in favors in order to get medical or special exemptions.

What made the group of four even more unusual was the fact that two of the aspiring military cadet officers were sons of prominent opposition figures detained by the military.

The first was Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, son of 1973 Constitutional Commission delegate and human rights lawyer Teofisto “Tito” Guingona Jr., who was arrested at the declaration of martial law in 1972, and again detained in 1978.

And the second,  Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. who, by this time had become a permanent fixture in Fort Bonifacio where he was being tried by a military tribunal on charges of murder and subversion.

“We joined the officers training course, apat kami n’un [with Noynoy]: sina TG Guingona, Vergel de Dios, and me,” recalls Galland Diaz, now a practicing attorney and a volunteer in the Aquino presidential campaign. “Lahat ng kaklase namin ayaw ’yang (ROTC), they would try to be exempted from that.”

Unit dissolved

So why would sons of detained opposition figures want to become proteges of the same institution that had jailed their fathers? Diaz recalls that the young Aquino was in no way conflicted. “It was in them to want to become leaders. Probably he (Noynoy) wanted to prove he is not just like any Tom, Dick and Harry there who can march left, right, left.”

“We wanted to become officers at that time,” Diaz says. “An officer carries a position of respect and authority. It means you can take command, take full responsibility, take full authority.”

Unfortunately for the four adventurous souls, there was not enough adventure to go around. The ROTC leadership thought the batch of aspiring officers was too small, and so decided to dissolve the group.

Perhaps it was all for the better; five months later, Noynoy would have more to worry about after the military tribunal found his father guilty of the charges of murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms, and sentenced him to death by firing squad. The sentence was suspended, but it would always hang over the Aquino family like a sword.

Diaz says few classmates and friends could really begin to understand what the Aquinos were going through at that time. The seventies were a colorful time to be a youngster, and for the well-off students in the Ateneo University, it was easy to be detached from the rest of the country.

Days of ‘baduy’

Ang uniform namin nuon, maong, t-shirt, rubber shoes,” Diaz says. “Kung mag-corduroy ka nu’n, medyo nagpapa-impress ka na nu’n.”

“When we attend parties, long sleeves ka, pare-parehong long sleeves, ’yung niknik. Medyo loud colors na madulas na material na medyo loose. By today’s standard, ’yun ang baduy talaga, pero nu’ng araw hit ‘yun.”

Soirees were the norm, Diaz says, with the men sitting in one corner and the women in another, and never the twain would meet until the lights dim and the music starts. But once the music stops, the men and women immediately retire to their respective corners to whisper among themselves and compare notes.

At a time when college life meant fun, freedom, and shiny shirts and bell-bottom pants, the young Noynoy Aquino would try to live the life of a regular young adult whose family was caught in a very irregular circumstance, Aquino’s former classmates recall. It was a time to be “free-spirited”; but for Noynoy Aquino, it was also a balancing act between growing up and maturing too fast.

Living history

“You know that the number one victim of martial law was his family. While we were reading it in books, they were living it on a day-to-day basis,” Diaz says. “He became a man faster than most of us. The guy lived through it, we just read through it.”

Diaz would know. He was Aquino’s classmate from their short-pants days in Preparatory school (“We were about six years or seven years old.”) to graduation from the University.

“You wouldn’t really notice him, he was just like us,” Diaz says. Noynoy was the quiet, well-off kid who tried just a little bit harder than the rest to get better grades, or be more successful, or be more honest than the rest.

“There are times when students do things to pass,” Diaz laughs, recalling some less than honest practices in school. “Sa kaniya hindi pwede ’yun eh. Si Noy, iba ’yung nakakulong ang father mo, you cannot afford to have any scandals.”

This meant leaving parties and gimmicks earlier than the rest, if only to beat the martial law curfew. “Extra cautious siya parati, he could not afford to be involved in anything that would cause trouble.”

Yet the young Aquino would not shirk from a challenge, or a gauntlet thrown his way. One time, he debated fiercely with a college professor when his other classmates would rather meekly hold their peace. “Dinebate ni Noy [yung professor] on principles,” Diaz says, adding that the particular professor actually liked to test his students to see who could stand up (to him) and hold his ground. “He will test you if you have the guts to explain your side. Eh kami ’pag mali kami, okay na. Siya (Noynoy), hindi eh, they debated on it.”

Collects late slips

High school life appeared to have been a simpler time for the young Aquino, with nothing but the concerns of growing up in an upper middle class school. His high school yearbook photo showed a baby-faced bright-eyed teenager with his hair parted on the left and swept carelessly to the right.

The write-up in his high school yearbook described him as the “successor of Ricky Avancena [grandson of President Manuel Quezon] as president of the class… coolest guy with the hottest temper.”

“His hobby: collecting  late slips. Pepsi fanatic who hates water. May ari ng ‘chikot ng bayan.’ Ano ang telephone number ni…”  the write-up says of the young Aquino. The fact that he drove his own car while in high school spoke volumes of his economic and social standing, and certainly earned him “pogi” points with the girls.

His college yearbook photo showed a longer-haired side-burned Aquino, still with the same toothy smile. His college write-up is as convoluted as most college write-ups go, as students struggle between verbosity and profundity.

“To be understood or misunderstood is not so much a struggle as it is to understand or misunderstand the longing for inner peace in each man’s heart. A sincere life is not to go above and beyond others and oneself… at high altitudes, a moment’s self-indulgence may mean death.”

It continued: “Should you ever come across me in your thoughts, never fail to include yourself, and your fellowmen, for in our longings, never at a moment forgetting one another, we together will struggle.”

Quiet, chatty

“I met senator Noy in college, around 1978 maybe,” recalls Carrie de Vera-Torres, another batchmate at the Ateneo. “My first impression of him was that he looked a lot like his father, then-Senator Aquino who was jailed in Fort Bonifacio. The father was a known passionate contra-bida in the life of Marcos, but Noy was just a regular guy, quiet to others, chatty to the people he knows.”

Asked what Noynoy was like as a college student, Torres says the senator was a “roly-poly,” in apparent reference to an easy-going nature. “He gave me the impression that he fulfilled all his requirements in school, just like everyone else.”

Torres adds that Noynoy was politically active in college, although not in a radical way. It was an activism that was more involved with engaging fellow students to participate in school processes. “Having martial law during most of our teenage school life made us complacent,” she says. “Bahala na sila mag-decide was the attitude. Senator Noy was part of that rally to end the apathy and complacency.”

“I remember when we invited Imee Marcos to Ateneo. Perhaps he was uneasy with the fact that Imee is the daughter of his father’s jailer. He didn’t attend the forum that the student council sponsored. He was lurking by the doorway of the auditorium. I teased him though, what if you end up dating her (Imee)?”

Sikaran student

Noynoy had other things to keep him busy as well. Diaz remembers that while most other students would practice Karate and other more popular forms of martial arts, Noynoy tried a different martial art – Sikaran – that is somewhat similar to today’s streetfighting.

“At that time he was engaged in martial arts, seryoso siya d’un,” Diaz says. “Hindi pa uso ang streetfighting nu’n, he was engaged in that already. I guess even at that time it was in him to be a fighter.”

Then of course there were the parties and the night life. Diaz remembers that they would hang out at the Where Else Disco. “Ang tawag nu’n, disco.’Yung mga disco naman nuon sa Makati, wala pa sa Cubao.”

Professor Gloria

It was also in the Ateneo where he bumped into another personality who would later figure prominently in his life. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was an associate professor in the Ateneo, and taught microeconomics.

Since Noynoy was majoring in economics, he naturally ended up taking the class of the future president of the Philippines. Perhaps he minds that idea now, but Diaz says that 30 years ago, he and his classmates certainly enjoyed the class of the petite economics professor.

“At that time we looked at Gloria as somebody who had the repository of all economic knowledge,” Diaz says.

And it didn’t hurt that the cute professor liked to wear tight-fitting outfits.

“At that time, she was pretty eh, she was very pretty as a professor,” Diaz says. “Kaya ma-eenganyo ka eh, you would attend her classes.”

Noynoy would get a B+ from Professor Gloria Arroyo, not bad, says Diaz, who passed the course by the “skin of my teeth.”

Kaya siguro si Noynoy got a B+ kasi maganda si Gloria nun,” Diaz laughs.

During those college years, it wasn’t yet clear where the batch was headed after graduation. Diaz remembers that most of their college friends took up law, and that Noynoy probably would have taken up law as well had he not had to leave for Boston to accompany his father in exile.

Family picture of the Aquinos taken from Facebook.

A calling?

Torres says she could see at that early stage that Noynoy would probably follow in his father’s footsteps and enter politics. “It was like it was his calling. You know, like inheriting your parents’ business.” But it never occurred to her that he would aim for the Presidency at some point.

In fact, Torres says, she was surprised to find a much more mature man in Noynoy when she met him again, this time as a congressman of Tarlac. Remembering the easy-going “roly-poly” guy in college, the change was remarkable. “I felt he has so much on his shoulders now. Perhaps the next time I can ever have the same conversations we had in our 30s would be when he is done being President of the Philippines.”

But the man remembered so fondly by his classmates would not join them in their graduation march.

Noynoy would leave with his family for Boston in March 1980 after President Ferdinand Marcos granted Ninoy permission to seek medical treatment for his ailing heart. It was the start of a three-year exile. So when members of Batch ’81 of the Ateneo de Manila University marched up the stage, Noynoy was in faraway Boston.

But before Noynoy would leave, Torres remembers a particular incident with her friend.

“When we were practising for our graduation march, he (Noynoy) snuck into our line (not his, of course), in front of me. I told him to get to his line and he told me that he wasn’t attending the ceremony that he was leaving for Boston (soon) to be with his family. I never saw him so happy.” – PCIJ, April 2010