By Ignacio R. Bunye
Sixty years ago last Friday, the President who was well-loved as a “Champion of the Masses “ met his untimely death when his presidential C-47 plane crashed on Mt. Manunggal, Balamban, Cebu.
President Ramon Magsaysay had just spent a very busy day in Cebu – speaking in four universities, talking separately with Cebuano political leaders, greeting religious leaders, and conducting his usual “unscheduled” inspections.
One report said he even managed to squeeze in some time to deliver a much-needed package of medicines for a patient – a certain Cornelio Faigao – who was suffering from a rare ailment.
Past midnight, despite the protestations of former President Sergio Osmeña, Sr., President Magsaysay insisted on flying home. He told Osmeña that he had another full schedule the following day.
The presidential plane, Mt. Pinatubo, crashed minutes after takeoff. A subsequent investigation identified the cause of the tragedy as “metal fatigue” of a crucial engine part.
Also on board the plane were Education Secretary Gregorio Hernandez, Presidential Assistant Tomas Cabili, Cebu Representative Pedro Lopez, Philippine Air Force Chief Brig. Gen. Benito Ebuen, and Secretary Jess Paredes.
Of the 26 persons on board, only one survived. Journalist Nestor Mata, fortuitously had fallen asleep without fastening his seat belt. On impact, Mata was thrown out of the burning plane. Mata survived with 2nd degree burns in parts of his body.
A pall of shock and gloom immediately blanketted the whole nation.
The man who captured the imagination of the masses with his endearing ways, his openness, his humility, and his sincerity was no more.
What made Magsaysay so close to the Filipino masses?
“The Guy” knew, almost instinctively, what the ordinary Filipino wanted and he delivered it to them. This he learned as a young boy during his growing-up years, as a guerrilla leader, and as a bus company mechanic.
Although his family had means, he grew up and played with farm hands.
During the war years, Captain Magsaysay lived with the ordinary folks as his guerrilla group moved in and around Mt. Pinatubo. (Hence, the name of the ill-fated presidential plane). His guerrilla group played a significant role in the Battle to Retake Bataan, by seizing control of San Marcelino airstrip prior to the landing of US troops in San Narciso.
He had an uncanny ability to fix engines. This landed him a job as a mechanic, later as a supervisor, in a bus company.
As President, one of his first official acts was to open the gates of Malacanang to the ordinary people. He listened and he acted on requests and complaints.
To reach a wider audience, Magsaysay institutionalized what has become known as the ten-centavo telegram. What was astonishing was the fact that people got an immediate response from Magsaysay’s Presidential Complaint and Action Center leaving a deep impression of a President who cares.
One of his legacy projects was a land-for-the landless program tailor-fit for former insurgents. This is credited for hastening the weakening of the Huk movement.
His “artesian well for very barrio” brought him even closer to the rural folks.
He lived a simple, dignified life. He was not very particular with formalities, preferring to be addressed simply as Mr. President, rather than Your Excellency.
More often than not, he used the Barong Tagalog in official functions (He was the first President to ever use the Barong in a presidential inauguration.). Outside Malacanang, on routine events, he went around wearing a nondescript loose-fitting polo shirt.
But whatever the occasion, one would not miss the sincere smile and the genuine firm handshake.
Magsaysay never felt any sense of entitlement.
He was defense secretary when, on his way to an official function, his car developed engine trouble. And no matter what his driver did, the engine just failed to re-start.
Magsaysay gave the driver a few minutes before alighting from the car. He rolled up his sleeves, checked what was wrong with the engine, and in no time the car was running again.
On another occasion, Magsaysay’s driver committed a traffic infraction and was immediately stopped by a policemen. On approaching the car, the policeman recognized the occupant and prepared to wave off the driver.
Magsaysay reportedly told the policeman: “If you don’t issue him a ticket, you will have no job tomorrow. But make it quick, I have an appointment to catch.”
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