I first met President Cory Aquino during the military trial of her husband, former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino. I was then a young human rights lawyer assisting the defense panel led by legal luminaries former Sen. Lorenzo Tanada and now Senator Joker Arroyo. My job then was to carry the law books and legal documents for the panel during the hearings.
We would often meet at the house of Cory’s mother in Dasmarinas Village. During those meetings, Cory would mingle with us, doting on our group of bright-eyed lawyers who were waging what was then a quixotic battle against a well-entrenched dictatorship. What struck me was her simplicity and her humility. She may have been from a prominent family, but she was down to earth.
When Cory arrived from Boston to bury Ninoy, I never saw her cry in public, not once. Even during the most trying moments of her presidency, she was always calm and composed. I have often wondered how she kept her composure even in the most trying moments. I now believe her quiet fortitude came from her unshakeable belief in God, her belief that He does not give us trials that we cannot bear.
One is hard pressed to imagine the soft-spoken Cory Aquino as a tough woman. But she displayed courage and toughness on several occasions.
She rejected suggestions from her more seasoned political advisers not to make a public appearance during the February 1986 EDSA Revolution. During a meeting at her sister’s house in Wack-Wack, her advisers were telling her “Cory, panalo na tayo. Huwag ka nang lumabas at baka madisgrasya ka pa.” She replied “Akala ko ba ang usapan natin handa tayong lahat to make the ultimate sacrifice? Lalabas ako.” The room fell silent. She then told her brother Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr. to look for a venue. Peping then turned to me and told me to look for a venue. I scouted for one. Later that day, Cory stood at the POEA Building at the corner of EDSA and Ortigas Avenue and addressed the crowd.
To me, that was the turning point of the EDSA Revolution. When Cory came out and was seen by the people at EDSA, she sent a message to the country that she was ready to assume the presidency.
At the height of the August 1987 coup attempt, I was in a meeting at Joker’s house when Cory called. Joker was then the Executive Secretary. He had stepped out so I took the call. Cory told me that she had been advised by some military commanders to leave Malacanang and to take shelter in Fort Bonifacio. I told her that sounded like a bad idea, and she said “Kaya nga. Kahit na anong mangyari, hindi ako aalis dito.” Afterwards, she gave orders for government forces to attack rebel positions.
And on the day Mrs. Arroyo declared a state of emergency, Cory led a march on Ayala Avenue. A phalanx of anti-riot policemen stood between her and the statue of her husband Ninoy at the corner of Paseo de Roxas. After a lot of pushing and shoving, the policemen gave way and Cory walked quietly to the statue where she laid a wreath. After the brief program, Cory took the microphone. Instead of delivering a political speech, she proceeded to lead the assembly in prayer.
Cory remained humble to the end. On the day she turned over the presidency to her successor, Fidel Ramos, she refused to take the presidential car to the Quirino Grandstand, saying she was no longer the president. After the program, as the guests mingled with the new president, Cory quietly made her way down the grandstand – alone, unattended. I ran to her side and helped her down the stairs and into a waiting car which brought her to Times St. and civilian life.
For those of us who were close to her, Cory was always there for you. Whenever her schedule permits, she would attend my birthday celebrations. And she was someone who was always ready to help in your time of need. When Malacanang suspended me in October 2006, she showed up at the Makati City Hall unannounced, and faced the media to declare her support for me. I am forever grateful to Cory for this gesture, and it will be one moment I will always remember.
Cory appointed me acting mayor of the then municipality of Makati on February 27 1986. I was the first local official to be appointed under her revolutionary government.
The February 1986 EDSA Revolution was more than a collective effort to overthrow a hated dictatorship. EDSA 1986 was for me also an expression of our collective desire for renewal: in ourselves, in our communities, and in our institutions. And Cory was the symbol of our desire for collective renewal.
What we have done in Makati, what we have achieved in Makati – a city that cares for its residents, where everyone, especially the poor, shares in the fruits of a vibrant economy, I believe this was Cory’s vision for our country.
During her presidency and even after, she would always introduce me as her favorite mayor. I must admit that I was thrilled whenever she would say those words. What I am today, I owe to Cory Aquino. I hope I have lived up to her expectations.
Cory Aquino was the personification of humility and selfless service, both as a public official and as private citizen. She was, in all respects, the quintessential servant-leader.
Cory provided us with the leadership we needed during those crucial years of rebuilding our democracy. She was also with us even when she was plain citizen Cory, joining the ranks of nameless, faceless Filipinos each time democracy and truth came under threat.
She was and will always be Cory Aquino, the mother of the nation and the shining example of servant-leadership that we sorely need today.