By Jane Santos-Guinto
It was my grandfather Lolo Manny who taught me how to read. He was a journalist for the South China Morning Post, one of Hong Kong’s two largest English newspapers at the time. But on weekends, he would teach me the rudiments of consonant-vowel-consonant blending.
Lolo comes from a family of educators. Both his parents were public school teachers in Agusan del Norte, a province in Southern Philippines. Up until her death in the 1970’s, his mother Lola Victorina was the Dean of the Northern Mindanao Colleges. Dean Francisco Benitez of the University of the Philippines and Sen. Helena Benitez of the Philippine Normal University are distant relatives.
Lolo taught himself how to read when he was barely four in 1938. By eight, he had already read Shakespeare’s entire collection, all volumes of the Encyclopedia for Children, and the Bible. World War II had broken out and children could not go to school, so Lolo Manny took care of his own education. “There was nothing else to do but read,” he would tell us his grandchildren later.
Ironically, Lolo never completed his formal education. He had married quite young, at 20, and when one child came after the next, there really was no time to study. But because he was exceptionally bright, having been a consistent honor student and later a top-scorer in the Civil Service Exam, he went on to have a career that many would consider stellar.
For a while, he taught in a public school like his parents. But when there were too many mouths to feed out of a teacher’s pay, he went to Manila and tried his luck in his real passion—writing. He wrote for the Times Journal with some of the country’s most noteworthy newsmen. At times, it still amazes me to find out whom he had worked with. In 1967, he became the first Filipino journalist to be sent by a local newspaper to Cardiff, England for a certificate course in journalism. For a time, he was one of the writers of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., one of the country’s most prominent heroes.
During Martial Law in the 1970’s with eight children, Lolo grabbed the opportunity to work in Hong Kong. This is where he mastered his craft for 20 years or so. And where he would tutor us his first few grandchildren in a tiny tenth floor apartment (or flat as the British-influenced Hong Kong Chinese would call it).
I don’t know if it was out of fear that I learned to read so quickly under my Lolo’s watch. After all, he had a feisty temper, one that I had witnessed on many occasions when I was young. By five, I was writing my own stories. He would bring me to company outings and introduce me to his journalist friends. Having always been on the petite side, I would stretch out my little hand to greet his British colleagues. One time, Lolo said I told them a made-up story, The Monkey and His Briefs.
In the late 1980’s, Lolo went back to the Philippines and became the editor in chief of The Manila Times. After retirement from full-time journalism, Lolo wrote chess columns for the Philippine Star and self-published a weekly chess newsletter for the players of the Quezon City Memorial Circle’s Chess Plaza. These days, he prefers to watch cable movies and exchange jokes with his great grandchild. He has survived three heart attacks and professes he has “no desire for anything else from life.”
Sometimes I wish I were a more diligent pupil; that I followed his advice to read, read, and read more. My knowledge of geography and world affairs is so poor that I squirm every time my 77-year-old Lolo asks his pop-up trivia questions. I salute the University of the Philippines for a great education, but I still feel inept in many areas. There are so many things I wish I knew more about.
I just hope that my own children would have a trickle of Lolo’s brilliance in their blood and pray every day that they would come soon enough to meet my first teacher and greatest mentor, their great grandfather Lolo Manuel O. Benitez, Sr.