Remembering CPR

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In 1980, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned three fresh graduates to be protocol officers of my father, then Minister Carlos P. Romulo. They were Jerill Santos, Reggie Bernabe and Bobby Reyes. As close-in protocol officers, they were practically attached to my father’s hip, preparing for and accompanying him to events, local and abroad.

Today is my father’s 124th birth anniversary. Below are the recollections of Jerill and Reggie who both remember him for his quick wit and humor.

I was assigned as a “close-in” protocol officer to Minister Romulo and remained so until his death in 1985. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how this assignment would chart the course of my life as a diplomat. I was 21 then, the man was six decades older: He was wise and learned, I was young and raw. What followed were years of pure education.

Some of the things I experienced over the years I was with him were nothing short of remarkable. This…at a black tie event he was hosting, a foreign ambassador arrived in a brown suit, sans tuxedo. In what I can only describe as pure class, he shook the ambassador’s hand at the reception line, then told him this: “Welcome, Your Excellency. Thank you for coming. It’s now 7:30. The dinner is at 8. You have half an hour to change.”

At another event, we stepped into the elevator at the InterContinental Hotel Manila. Inside were the Papal Nuncio and several diplomats. Without smiling, he told the Nuncio, who was in his archbishop’s cassock: “You know Excellency, the invitation said long gown, but that was for the ladies.”

Jerill Santos with CPR

When he learned that I passed the Foreign Service Officers’ Examination in 1983, he said “I don’t know how you passed the exam, but apparently you really did. I owe you dinner.” So we went to Las Conchas, a restaurant along Makati Avenue. He and Mrs. Beth Day Romulo were at one table, me and my duty partner Bobby Reyes at a table nearby. He looks at what I ordered and then says “Give me that.” Mrs. Romulo goes, “Why are you taking his food?” His answer: “Because I want what he ordered!” Goodbye to my steamed crab.

Many knew him, but perhaps I knew him in ways they did not as I was with him even in private moments, such as when he pulled me out into the garden of his house because he did not want Mrs. Romulo to see him weep upon learning of Ninoy Aquino’s death.

While his mind remained crystal clear, age finally caught up with him. I was on duty with him at the Kidney Center on Dec. 11, 1985 for his regular dialysis session when he complained of nausea. Four days after, he lost the battle at age 87.

While his death was a huge loss to the nation he loved dearly and so proudly and ably served, from a personal standpoint, we in his protocol detail also lost a mentor and a friend. He will always remain alive in our hearts. By Jerill Santos, consul general, in Houston Texas and former ambassador to Vietnam

Writing remembrances of the much-revered General is akin to one of his naughty dinner speech opening lines, in which there is so much to say that “I feel like a fly in a nudist beach, there is so much flesh around, I don’t know where to begin”.

Afforded to a select few, working for the General was an opportunity of a lifetime that enriched me both professionally and personally. But first I had to undergo a baptism of fire as a neophyte to meet the General’s high standards and exacting expectations. Learn I had to, and fast. But I did learn a lot from him.

The General was a man molded from the “old school”. From dressing up appropriately, to unfailingly writing thank you letters back to people after being hosted in a dinner or receiving a gift, the General always did things properly, and with courtesy. Once he overheard his then chief of staff giving instructions to call the protocol “boys” to discuss an airport welcome of his guest.  He quickly admonished her not to call us protocol “boys,” but as protocol officers, not only to add gravitas to the job we do and who we represent, but also as a courtesy to the person being met.

Famous for his wit and humor, he was just as known for his temper. He particularly disdained being late, and even more due to traffic. Once I accompanied him from the hospital in Quezon City to his home in Makati, wherein the driver tried to avoid traffic in EDSA by taking a side road between Araneta Center and Camp Aguinaldo, but we got stuck anyway. Ranting about the unmoving traffic, he asked with irritation the name of the road, to which I gingerly responded “General Romulo Street, Sir”. Thereafter, I never heard another word from the General who wanted to step out of the car and walk down “his” street, where if not for the fact that he was in his pajamas.

Reggie Bernabe with CPR and Mrs. Beth Day Romulo

He was also a stickler for punctuality. I recall that in one of his retirement farewell dinners, he had us adjust and readjust the seating arrangement as some of the dignitaries at the head table arrived late or failed to show up without any advice. This so miffed the General that in his opening remarks he said “Ladies and gentlemen, I gave hell to my protocol staff to make sure you are given the courtesy of a proper seating and other arrangements are in order. So please, do come if you want to come, advise us if you are coming late, and do not come if you had not said so’’. He then asked the entire protocol staff to stand up so we can be recognized by the guests.

My treasure chest of learnings from and memories of the General is bursting with tidbits of history anecdotes and insights of events, people and places. There is so much more to tell, but one memory that I will always cherish is the swelling feeling of pride every time I walked into a venue with the General, where he would be greeted with reverence and admiration by the crowd. As he “walked with heroes”, I too did walk with the legend that is – and forever will be - General Carlos P. Romulo. By Reginald Bernabe, minister and consul general in Lisbon, Portugal.

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