Joker Arroyo, thank you

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

My first recollection of Joker Arroyo was during the dark days of the Marcos martial law regime. I heard about this human rights lawyer who had dared to go inside the then dreaded Fort Bonifacio military camp to defend Ninoy Aquino before a military tribunal.

I had the opportunity to know Joker only after EDSA when I became the first member of his staff when he became the Executive Secretary of President Corazon Aquino. After a few months, I was appointed to head the Presidential Management Staff. During that time, we reported directly to President Aquino but the Executive Secretary was considered as the primus inter pares (first among equals). I continued to work very closely with Joker until his resignation.

I suppose I was the one person who was with him from his first day to his last as Executive Secretary.  When he decided to run for the Senate in 2001 and 2007, he asked me to be his campaign manager. I naturally accepted.

Someday I would like to write about our days together serving President Corazon Aquino. Those were truly historic days as we transitioned from martial law to a democracy. We survived coup attempts although there were times when we had to sleep in Malacanang for several nights. We were very involved in rebuilding the democratic institutions that had been destroyed or bastardized by the Marcos regime.

But a column will not do justice to describe what it was like to be working in the Office of the President during that truly critical period in our nation’s history.  These last few days, I have recalled memories of how it all began for me.

It was Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1986. Corazon Aquino had been sworn in as President that morning in Club Filipino. We had been in EDSA since Saturday. That noon, I was with a group that included Nene Pimentel and Jaime Ferrer. I remember that Nene got a call to go to the house of Josephine Reyes in Wack Wack where Cory Aquino was then staying. Nene told me to accompany him and when we arrived, there were already around 50 persons in the house.

We were gathered in the lanai waiting for the latest developments regarding the Marcoses. Then all the activities had to stop because Cory had decided to have a mass.

After the mass, it was announced that Marcos had left the country. We could hear the cheering and the shouting since only a wall separated the house from EDSA. Cory Aquino then asked some people, including Jimmy Ongpin, to go inside the house to meet with her. As she was entering the house, she suddenly turned around and declared to everyone that Joker Arroyo would be her executive secretary.

I noticed that Joker’s first reaction was to laugh in his infectious, loud, belly type of laughter. Then he and Nene Pimentel started having a private conversation in one corner. After a while, they called me and Joker told me to report to him the following day. I asked him where I would report. He told me he was planning to visit Malacanang Palace the following day but I should look for a temporary office in the Cojuangco building where President Cory would be holding temporary office.

I then asked him what would be our tasks. As a La Salle LiaCom graduate, former DLSU business department chair and MBM ’70 AIM alumni, I was expecting job descriptions and organizational structures. Joker then started laughing again and gave me an answer that sounded like “run the government.” I would later discover that one of my most fascinating responsibilities was to research on how the offices of the heads of government, in democratic countries, were managed and how staff work was accomplished.

The Office of the Executive Secretary began with Joker Arroyo, one staff assistant – me – and one secretary. We worked in a small room next to the cafeteria in the Cojuangco Bldg. which had been transformed into a briefing area for the media. We placed a big blackboard in the middle of the room. On one side was our working area, and on the other side was the receiving area.

There was no legislature at that time. However, President Cory mandated that every appointment, repeal of a presidential decree and new regulations would be documented and issued as an executive order. Those were busy times for us and we hardly saw our families.

He also brought together an extraordinary group of people to work together in the Office of the President – Macaraig, Saguisag, Factoran, Locsin, Azcuna, Sarmiento, Elma, Padilla, Lucilla, Lagonera and many more.

Joker Arroyo was not only my boss but was also my mentor. A value that he instilled in me was what he called the “majesty of the law.” It was his strong belief in the rule of law that led him to become the quintessential human rights lawyer. It is this value that has been my anchor in my lectures, my writings, and in the causes that I continue to espouse.

When I heard about the passing away of Joker Arroyo and his family’s request that there should be no wake or funeral or necrological services, I remembered two stanzas from a poem by Charles Wolfe:

Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note

As his corpse to the ramparts we buried.

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast

Not in sheet nor in shroud we bound him,

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest

With his martial cloak around him.

Farewell, Joker Arroyo. And for everything you did for the country, thank you.

* * *

Email: [email protected]


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