One happy season

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Jan 3 2011

By Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo

AS A HIGH school senior in convent school, I dreamt of going to UP for college. My entire barkada had decided to go there.

But my parents decided that I was going to UST. They had been taken in by all that propaganda about the atheists and communists in Diliman, which was part of the campaign against UP mounted by the priests and nuns in Catholic schools like mine. Though I hated this, and added it to my mental list of things to hold against them, it never occurred to me to rebel.

So, a few months short of 16, I found myself a freshman in UST’s Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (Philets). I was told this was where students who wanted to be writers went, to major in either philosophy or journalism. There were no creative writing programs then.

Philets was a tiny laid-back college, and it turned out was one of the happiest seasons in my life. UST was still run by Spanish friars; but the Philets Dean, Father Alfredo Panizo, was a true intellectual, and a bohemian at heart. Most of the faculty had been Philets themselves, and were practicing newspapermen or advertising executives. At least a third of the students were working students, already on their way to successful careers in media, advertising, or the new field of public relations. This soon cured me of any feelings of self-importance I might have acquired from my early successes in the small pond I had come from.

The university’s official student paper was The Varsitarian, which affected a format borrowed from Time magazine, except that it had a literary section of which it was extremely proud, since many of the country’s major writers (like Frankie Sionil Jose, Johnny Gatbonton, Ophelia Alcantara-Dimalanta, Rolando Tiño, Bienvenido Lumbera, etc.) had first seen print there. I didn’t dare set my sights so high. I applied instead to be a reporter in the Blue Quill, my college’s paper, where many V staffers got their start. It was one of the best decisions of my life, because its editor-in-chief was Joe Burgos (who said he was an upperclassman, when he had the time for it). Joe was already an excellent editor, and knocked off whatever nonsense was still left in me, by simply assuming we were all already professional journalists like himself.

Julie Daza, the Varsitarian’s first woman assistant editor, a Philets senior (who was also working for the Evening News), encouraged me to try for the V. It was the best training for a career in journalism later, she said. Jean Pope, the V’s co-eds editor, a Philets junior (and a writer for a popular section in the Manila Times called, I think, “Crew Cuts and Pony Tails”), also told me I should be in the V. But I liked the Quill and decided to stay one more year.

Toward the end of my sophomore year, I took the V exam, and was accepted as features editor. The paper’s moderator was Father Jose Cuesta, O.P., and its Technical Adviser was Dr. Vic Rosales. Father Cuesta read every inch of copy before passing it on to Dr. Rosales, who did the hands-on managing. Fr. Cuesta had a deep, growling bass and a formidable scowl which quite intimidated me; but I was later to realize he was actually a gentle soul. And Dr. Rosales, who was married to one of my teachers in Philets, eventually became a good friend.

My editor-in-chief was Jean Pope, the first woman to hold the post. Felicito Bautista was news editor with Cirilo Bautista as his assistant; Kit Tatad, literary editor with Albert Casuga as his assistant; Tish Bautista, co-eds editor; Eli Ang Barroso, alumni editor; Bayani de Leon, Filipino editor with Marietta Dichoso as his assistant; Demosthenes Roja (an engineering student), sports editor; and Remedios Baquiren (a fine arts student), art editor, with Danny Dalena as her “alternate.” Among the reporters were Ben Afuang, the Cuasay brothers (who were medical students and whose older brother Ramon, also a doctor, had been a V editor) Orlando and Nestor, and Arabella Gonzalez.

Our newsroom was on the ground floor of the Main Building, which looked so old that at first I thought it had been transferred, stone by stone, from Intramuros to España, like the Arch of Centuries. It was a dark, cavernous, smoke-filled room, saved from gloominess by the floor-to-ceiling doors on both sides of the room, overlooking grassy quadrangles. There were slow-moving, fat-bladed fans suspended from the tall ceiling, enormous wooden desks for the editors, equipped with swivel chairs, heavy manual typewriters, and ashtrays, all of which qualified as antiques even then. There were also smaller wooden tables with mismatched chairs and even older typewriters for the reporters. And lining the walls behind the desks were wooden cabinets, with cloudy glass doors. These were crammed with sheets of both clean and used newsprint, copy awaiting copyediting, proofs awaiting proofreading, old V issues, typewriter ribbons, and sundry personal effects like paperbacks, umbrellas, jackets and half-eaten sandwiches. It was a mess. And we loved it. We were stepping into a tradition!

The printing press was at the far edge of the campus, on the corner of España and P. Noval. One had to cross the football field to get to it, moving in a diagonal line and passing the chapel on one’s way. The linotype machines, and little Mang Narcing, who was the very soul of patience, occupied the first floor. After the corrected proofs were done, they went to the tiny offset department on the mezzanine. Section editors were responsible for putting their own pages to bed, although the editor-in-chief would go over all final proofs again afterwards. So for a few days each month, we all smelled of printer’s ink and suffered from eye strain.

We took an oath before the Rector Magnificus, swearing to “uphold and preserve the ideals” of UST, and were handed a typewritten list of 13 “Rules,” which included “maintaining order and discipline in the office at all times” and “using the typewriters and the telephone exclusive for official business.”

And we did take our jobs very seriously, putting in many long hours on our own writing and on the editing of submitted materials. The magazine came out once a month, each issue with around 60-70 pages. I think we were paid an allowance, though it can’t have been a big amount. But by the time I was a senior, the V had become more important to me than my studies, and I think, most of my fellow staff members felt the same way (except maybe for Theni Roja and the Cuasays). This may have been because we were all getting ready for the next stage in our life.

I realize now that the work habits that I picked up in that office have stood me in good stead all my life. To this day I can set aside personal problems and personal taste, and produce a competently written story on assignment, using the number of words specified and submitting it on time. This is what being a professional journalist means to me, and I learned it in the Varsitarian.

But all that aside, I think we spent that much time in the office because we liked it there. We felt at home there. We had grown attached to the ratty furniture and the battered typewriters and the old-fashioned ceiling fans and the cigarette smoke and the mess. Of course we also enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. Many of my fellow staffers had been my friends in Philets to begin with, and the V strengthened those bonds. These many years after, my memories of that office are among the warmest I have of my old school.

Jean (who by then was in graduate school and already assistant editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, I think) and Cito did another year with the V. Jun Pangilinan took over news; and Danny Dalena became art editor. Theni and I stayed on with sports and features respectively; Norma Miraflor joined us as literary editor with Nestor Cuasay as her assistant; Jake Macasaet came in as cadets editor; Roger Sikat took over Pilipino with Marietta Dichoso as his assistant; Tish became religion editor; Susan Santamaria and Daisy Uy took over co-eds. And Fely Consignado, Rey Datu and Luningning Salazar were among our reporters.

At 19, I had not yet decided what I would do with my life after graduation. The choices seemed to be to go to graduate school abroad or accept the offer of a part time job with the Manila Chronicle, for which I had been writing a weekly youth page column since sophomore year. In any case, I figured there was no harm in taking the V exam again, and applied for the position of assistant editor.

When the results were released, I was stunned to learn that I was being offered editor-in-chief. I emphatically did not want to be editor-in-chief! To begin with I didn’t think I could do the job. Secondly, I didn’t want to be boss. Especially not female boss to a staff of mainly male writers, among whom were some who clearly wanted the position since they had applied for it. I had been brought up thinking that # 1 would always be a man. And as long as I was convinced of his being a superior being, I had no problems with that.

Father Cuesta and Father Panizo actually paid my parents a visit to get their help in convincing me to take the job. Their idea was to name Cito Bautista and Manny Azarcon, executive editor and managing editor respectively. “They can do the leg work and the press work,” Father Cuesta said to my parents. “Since she’s a girl, she will need help with things like that.”

To make a long story short, I accepted the job. For a long time I believed that I had simply succumbed to pressure. But now I think I may well have been simply in denial. Maybe I really wanted the job. What do I know?

Having decided to take it on, I told myself that my first step ought to be to ensure the cooperation of the men who would be part of my team. Should I play the Helpless Female card? Or should I put on a Tough Woman act? I need not have worried. Cito and Manny were both fine editors and perfect gentlemen. Jun stayed on as news editor, and Tish as co-eds editor. Norma took over features; Nestor took over literary, with Rita Gadi as his assistant. The other section editors were Anastacio de Guia Jose Ser Sahagun, Ma. Concepcion Zamora and Ofelia Reyes. And among the new reporters was Bernardo Bernardo (who would become editor-in-chief after Jun, who would replace me) My art director was Ramon Dellosa, who had been hand-picked by Danny. It was a good team.

This was before the university campuses became battlegrounds. Though UP’s students had always been politicized, and the Collegian, always oriented toward national events, UST was still cocooned in an age of innocence. Today, going over my old copies of the 12 issues of that year when I sat behind the editor’s desk, I feel acute embarrassment. The First Quarter Storm was only a few years away. Our personal dreams and private struggles were about to take a backseat to politics. But we were blissfully ignorant of it. I think now that the best thing about my editorials was the art work by Mon Dellosa on the margins.

In 1964, the university had set up a new College of Science, and merged Liberal Arts and Philets to form the new Faculty of Arts and Letters. Mine had been the last Philets graduating class. The new college needed teachers, and I was asked to teach one undergraduate literature course, which with incredible temerity, I actually agreed to do. I had also enrolled in the graduate school. This meant that I was studying, and holding down three jobs—assistant women’s editor for Graphic Magazine, part time teacher, and editor of the V. Somehow, it all worked out. Youth makes everything possible.

I have seen the high-tech Varsitarian offices of today and I know that the UST Press is very state-of-the-art. I also know from Lito Zulueta that the staff attends regular training seminars with leading professionals as resource persons. I assume that all this progress has made our young successors better at their jobs than we were in the old days. Certainly they must be more efficient, less dreamy, more in touch not just with the rest of the country, but with the rest of the world, as, indeed, which young person today isn’t?

But I wonder if they’ll look back on this season in their life with as much nostalgic delight as I look back on Philets and the Varsitarian of my time. V

Known as the pioneer of creative non-fiction, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo was the editor in chief of the Varsitarian from 1964-1965. She received both her Bachelor of Philosophy and MA in Literature from the University of Santo Tomas. She is currently the Vice President for Public Affairs of the University of the Philippines.