Penman for Monday, October 25, 2021
THIS THURSDAY, October 28, a small and socially-distanced book launch will be held at the Development Bank of the Philippines in Makati to honor one of the DBP’s guiding lights, and one of the most distinguished and accomplished economists and diplomats of his time. I was privileged to have been asked to write this book, titled O, Ilaw: The Life and Legacy of Leonides S. Virata, by the late Leo’s son Luis Juan or Buboy, himself a highly successful businessman.
Few people below 65 will remember Leo Virata now, which was one reason why the book, published by the Cavite Historical Society, was written. For Buboy, it was to make sure that his children and grandchildren will know his father the way he did, and to introduce Leo to a new generation of Filipinos now sadly too used to seeing government officials and businessmen as crooks.
Leo Virata was, in various phases of his life, both a public servant and a pillar of the business community. Born in Imus, Cavite in 1918 to the family that bred his eldest brother Enrique and Enrique’s son Cesar, Leo was an academic standout from grade school to college, graduating cum laude in Business Administration from the University of the Philippines before being sent on to Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University for graduate studies. Caught by the war in the US, Leo then became Gen. Carlos P. Romulo’s indispensable aide, all the way to the United Nations.
He returned to the Philippines after the war to set up the research department at the new Central Bank, a convergence point for the best and brightest young economic minds of the time, including Horacio Lava, Benito Legarda Jr., and Sixto K. Roxas. He then moved to Philam Life in 1952 as financial vice-president and vice-chairman of its investment committee, spearheading the company’s support for vital economic projects, including Filoil, Far East Bank, Bacnotan Cement, and Manila Doctors Hospital, among others.
After almost two decades in the private sector, Leo was taken in by President Marcos in 1969 as Secretary of Commerce and Industry, before being appointed chairman of the DBP in 1970. The bank was then saddled by bad loans, but Leo cleaned up the mess as best he could and reoriented the bank to support countryside development. Tragically, he died in 1976 aged only 58 of lung cancer, and was universally mourned for his brilliance, his dedication to public service, and his integrity (when he took over the DBP, he explicitly ordered his relatives not to visit him at his office).
When Buboy asked me to write his father’s biography a few years ago, I had heard of the name but knew very little of the man himself, and immediately I realized how difficult it would be to reanimate the character of a subject who had been gone for over 40 years. Almost always, in my previous assignments, I had had the luxury of working with subjects who were still very much alive and blessed with elephantine memories (as Wash SyCip was) or had roomfuls of catalogued materials gathered over the decades waiting to be sorted out (as Ed Angara did). Family members are a great resource, and Buboy and his wife Libet gave me all the help they could, but sadly Leo’s wife Bebe Lammoglia Virata—a renowned art collector—and Buboy’s sister Vanna had passed on.
Thankfully, some luminaries whom Leo mentored or influenced were still around—among them, the journalist Jake Macasaet, and businessmen and public officials such as Manny Zamora, Louie Villafuerte, Cesar Zalamea, Titoy Pardo, and Johnny Litton—from whom I was able to get the most interesting vignettes about Leo and his times. (Among other things, Leo did not let his relationship with Marcos intrude into his decisions, and could say no to the man; the Viratas had lost land to the Marcoses, recovered only after EDSA.)
Writing a biography requires more than fleshing out someone’s Wikipedia entry. I always remind my clients that I’m a novelist rather than a professional historian, so my interest lies in capturing a character inside and out, trusting the story to reveal the subject’s strengths and weaknesses without having to editorialize on his or her behalf.
My writing stalled for about a year as I struggled to fill in gaps about Leo’s professional and personal life. Impossible as it seemed, I wanted to hear the man himself; Leo was a prodigious speaker and crowd-pleaser (the title of the book adverts to his favorite kundiman, which he would sing at the drop of a hat). I got a terrific break when Buboy unearthed two scrapbooks bulging with Leo’s memorabilia and notes from his years in the US, as a student and as CPR’s right-hand man. Finally, in this collection of postcards, concert tickets, restaurant menus, and such ephemera—alongside his correspondence with CPR—the person emerged, standing on the verge of an outstanding career, finding his footing in a world wracked by war, thousands of miles away from the groves of Imus.
Despite having traveled the world and having married an Italian mestiza, Leo remained a provinciano at heart. When Leo died, hundreds of townsfolk and schoolchildren lined the road leading to his grave in his hometown, which considered him a hero. I wonder how many of our leaders today will deserve that kind of farewell.