Wash SyCip from a distance

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

WASHINGTON SyCip certainly was not in my loop of acquaintances and associates, friends or colleagues, until he was 66 years old, or about 30 years ago, when my husband passed away and he was instrumental in having the Quadrangle Garden of the Asian Institute of Management named after him.

Before that, he was an intimidating figure from what I observed from very far because of his formidable business reputation and how people spoke of him. When my brother-in-law Roberto Ongpin returned from the US to join SGV, our families lived across the street from each other in a compound in Pasay City. He had no telephone in those days of PLDT failing to meet the demand for telephones. Jim and I had a telephone by virtue of having applied for it before we left for graduate work in the US two years before. You had to be in line for two years to get a telephone in those days. So, when RVO, as he is widely known today, got a call from Mr. SyCip at home, it was our telephone number that as used and we had to run across the street and get him to answer it. It was usually early in the morning before normal business hours and it always seemed urgent, like God was calling from above. RVO would come quickly to hear The Voice. After all, despite Velayo being an uncle of the Ongpin brothers, the names SyCip, Gorres and Velayo sounded like demigods to us youngsters then. It also sounded like work camp. My cousin, who was Wash’ssecretary for 25 intensity-driven years while SGV expanded offices and personnel, finally asked to retire to smell the flowers. Wash went on for decades after she left, as hardworking as ever. No wonder he had an awesome reputation.

Eventually, Jim and Wash became colleagues when Jim sat on the AIM board and they got to know each other from whatever business contacts or gatherings. In fact, I just recently came across a photograph of Wash and Jim signing something and smiling broadly. But I only got to know Wash a bit after my husband passed away.

Much before, I once sat next to him at a Repertory play (he was an avid member of their audience and I saw him many times at their performances, sometimes with his twin granddaughters) when he announced to me, “Senator Ninoy Aquino is arriving in a few weeks.” I was flattered that he told me like I should know which I did not know. I realized then that business and politics have to interact from hearing Wash talk about a political figure.

Eventually, after EDSA, we were together brieflyin two non-government organizations– Friendly Care Foundation andSynergeia. The first was into affordable health care and family planning and the second was involved in education. In these circles, we were a very lay group with very sketchy business backgrounds or knowhow. Wash carried on as though we were equals.

It was here where I found him to be incisive, direct and results-oriented. The action was social welfare, not business, but he took to it like duck to water. Just like he eventually did from building a business to doing philanthropic work. Meetings had to come up with progressive reports on what we were doing. He would sit and listen, sometimes seeming to nod off, but suddenly he would sit up and ask a sharp question, demanding an accurate to-the-point reply. He never really raised his voice, was always calm, never agitated or ill-tempered at those meetings. But he kept to his standards. When my son, Rafael, had to be interviewed by him for a school application and was slightly late, he told me that, “these young people nowadays lack punctuality.” I repeated that to Rafael who had to live it down. Lesson from SyCip.

It was a nice discovery that he could joke too. On the matter of family planning that Friendly Care Foundation provided, he would tease me whenever we met by asking, “Have you been excommunicated yet?”

His memory was amazing. He remembered everyone. He also went everywhere. I saw him many times, usually from a distance, at art exhibits, repertory plays, social occasions, in the media, on television. During his last birthday celebrations, I was one of the many to be invited. He had a collection of owls that was a conversation piece. One came across owls in his office and at his home when he entertained. A very whimsical obsession for a tycoon with much work to do, many papers to read and time programmed to the minute, I thought. In his later years, he began to be a fashion plate of sorts, wearing the bright colored silk shirts fashioned specially for him by Jeannie Goulbourn. They became his signature attire. He was mellowing into a more approachable, more colorful figure having scores of friends not necessarily from business but the arts as well like ImpyPilapil, and doing more non-business socializing. When the dual citizenship law passed, he took on Filipino citizenship. He deserved it after all the years of putting the Philippines on the map of foreign investors, advising local business, being a founding trustee of the Asian Institute of Management and creating the Philippine accountancy giant, SGV.

Somehow my name got into his Christmas gift list. So, every year until last year, I would get Christmas gifts consisting of articles made of a red stone that was mined somewhere in Negros Oriental and turned into lovely objects like boxes, plates, bowls, trays. It seems he owned the whole output from wherever it came from and had turned it into hundreds of gifts to last many years. One gift, a bowl, is right now sitting on my dining table. I will treasure my hoard of these red stone articles and remember him as the generous giver. He must have been helping someone in the red stone business along the way, I suspect. Wash cared and helped.

RVO and he had a rift that lasted for some time. But suddenly at an art exhibit he came to me and said cryptically, “I had lunch with your brother-in-law.” I knew it was the end of their misunderstanding. I mused that it was thoughtful of him to tell me. And a few weeks before he passed away, he accepted a dinner in his honor by RVO. I was invited and was amused to see the reception line consisting of Wash SyCip, Lucio Tan, Cesar Virata, and RVO, all of them seated, like four philosophers, or sages, or ubiquitous business icons, or the older generation, symbolically or maybe realistically. Whatever, it was a sight to see.

To my children, he always spoke of his memories of their father. And that is how we got to know each other, however distantly or briefly. With his warm thoughts of my husband, I found a little spot in his world like many others, unlikely or not.

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