December 08, 2006

Portrait of a gentleman banker

'Tio Paeng' (left) and 'Gov. Cutie' at a book launch last year. (Photo from BusinessMirror)

Something Like Life
Dec. 8, 2006

IT was a text message I had been dreading to receive. But exactly at 3:49 pm on November 30, I received the sad news that former Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas governor Rafael B. Buenaventura had left this earthly domain for his true home.

“Tio Paeng,” as all the banking reporters fondly called him, had been in and out of hospitals over the past few years. He had valiantly fought the attacks on his person and position while at the helm of the central bank, but his bout with cancer was his most difficult battle of all.

Those of us who had a special affection for him would often ask his successor, Gov. Amando “Say” Tetangco, for any updates on his health. (Ever the wit, Gov. Paeng bestowed on Say the title “Gov. Cutie,” after one of my pieces; he also reveled in his nickname “Tio Paeng,” despite its, ahem, lusty undertone.) For a while, we heard he was doing better and some of us crossed our fingers that he would maybe be well enough to make it to our friend Des’s wedding. Alas, it was not be, and his frail health prevented him from being with us at the joyous occasion.

To be frank, Gov and the senior banking reporters didn’t always have a sunny relationship. There were some personal issues in the past which had their roots when he was still president of PCIBank. Eventually, wounds would heal and the frosty relationship would thaw. To his credit, Gov tried to reach out to those hurt among us the most, and tried to repair the damage that had been done.

I had another personal brush with Gov’s humility back when I was an editor at Manila Standard. After a particularly scathing editorial I had penned on a banking fiasco, the outspoken governor uttered the immortal line, “No one reads Manila Standard anyway!” to the banking reporters. Of course, the telephone lines burned immediately as the mischievous bunch reported to me what the governor had said. He became an even more favorite target after that.

Of course, as the Gov only knows only too well, life is too short to hold any grudges against anybody. So, over a few glasses of red wine at the BSP’s annual bankers’ cocktails, we buried the hatchet, so to speak, without even nitpicking the issues between us.

Later, he would become one of the most avid fans of my former paper, not just because we had supported his stay at the central bank, but because we actually respected the independence of the institution, even when others did not. The Gov would never forget to show his eternal gratitude to those who had backed him in his quest to defend the institution he headed. He would text his thanks, or call personally to express his appreciation for the stories written.

And yet he knew how to draw the line between friendship and his professional responsibilities. It was a quality I admired in him as I practice this myself. There were times when he may have sacrificed relationships for what he called “the greater good.” Only his real friends understood and didn’t take him to task for these sacrifices, which he needed to do to make an objective decision on important banking issues.

Despite the rarefied air that he often breathed (he was a permanent fixture in society magazines), Gov. Paeng was very accessible. While still at PCIB, he was the only bank president who came to the phone and gave me, a new banking reporter then, the time of day, this even before meeting me in person. At the BSP, he virtually revolutionized business journalism by making announcements on interest-rate policy via text messaging.

No matter how late it was, or wherever in the world he may be, he would answer our questions via SMS. Sometimes, he would return calls himself on the way to a meeting or some engagement, often sacrificing short private moments to make sure he touched base with us. I remember my cellphone being filled with saved text messages from him, important quotes that I used for the pieces I would write. No issue was too tiny for him to respond to…even if it was only some chismis.

His management of monetary policies aside, it was probably the Gov’s lovelife which engendered the most discussion. His relationship to painter Marivic Rufino was ardently whispered about even though their long relationship was no secret. The women gossiped about it because, well, they were women, while the men did their thing, too, perhaps envious of Gov’s good fortune.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’ve always believed in second chances. And for someone like the Gov who was, ahem, no spring chicken, to be able to pledge his undying love to another person at that stage in his life was something wonderful. To be in your 60s and in love! Gov. Paeng was truly blessed.

There was no doubt that the Gov was enamored with his lady love. It showed in his glowing face, and in his relaxed demeanor. Even in his clothes. I bumped into the couple once while having dinner at L’Incontro and it amused me that, like teenagers, they were both dressed in red.

Gov. Paeng would often jokingly count the years, down to the days and seconds to his retirement. It was as if he couldn’t wait to finally step down and spend his remaining years just quietly at the side of Marivic.

I never got to see the Gov finally get his wish, as there was no formal turnover of his post to Say, a professional central banker. Gov was in the US by then dealing with his illness. When he finally made his first public appearance at a central bank affair, a book launch, he was already feeling the ravages of the disease. He had lost weight and his hair. But ever the dapper dresser, his head was capped stylishly by a beret. And as the photos from the affair show, he was obviously pleased for Say, who was just positively beaming beside him. Gov. Paeng respected talent, and he knew Say was the right man to inherit his job.

While most people will remember Gov for his illustrious banking career, I will always remember him as a kind, decent, witty and gentle man who to the end, still thought of others. He didn’t want flowers, only donations to the Philippine General Hospital’s institute for indigent cancer patients. In his passing, he wanted to give life to others.

( This is the correct version of my column, Something Like Life, which appears every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)


MBuenaventura said...

I am the daughter of Rafael Buenaventura. I would like to clear facts up. One is my father has been married to my mother Lee Earl Buenaventura. They have been married for 41 years. He was never married to That Rufino woman. I am sick of reading about her lies being married to my father. My parents were married in the Catholic church in the Philippines in 1965. I do appreciate the kind words you wrote about my father. The only wife and now widow of this great man is Lee Earl Buenaventura.

Stella Arnaldo said...

Dear Ms. Buenaventura,

Thank you for writing. I assure you I meant no disrespect to you, your mother nor the rest of your family. I never wrote that Gov. Paeng and Marivic were married because I knew they were not. I merely noted that they were a couple. It is a reality one cannot deny.

I have been privileged to have known your father. Please take care and I pray for strength for you and your family in your time of grief.

Kind regards,

Stella Arnaldo