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Fidel V. Ramos: I became a board-certified civil engineer when I was 25

SOUTH Korea, May 1952


FORMER President Fidel V. Ramos’s vow to become a civil engineer, instead of a lawyer like his father, was fulfilled at age 25, when he hurdled the difficult Civil Engineering Board Examination at the National University in Sampaloc, Manila.

The epiphany came to him at age 17, while crossing the Pasig River on a pontoon bridge in 1945. The second world war had just ended. He looked around him and saw that all of the steel and wooden bridges were skeletal derelicts lying at the bottom of the river of what used to be MacArthur, Jones, Ayala and Nagtahan Bridges.

Beyond the bank of the river were the bombed out Post Office Building, the Manila Metropolitan Theater, Manila City Hall and just south of it, the huge concrete America-built buildings around Agripina Circle. They were all destroyed by the bombings to liberate Manila from the Japanese.

“I saw the massive damage when we came back to Manila after liberation sometime in February 1945. And when I was crossing the Pasig River on a pontoon bridge, put up by the American liberation forces because the old Nagtahan Bridge had been blown up, I decided right then and there to become an engineer, in order to help in the reconstruction of the Philippines,” Ramos reminisced.

He said although he already had a Masters of Science in Civil Engineering degree from the US, he had to review for the board. As a working student at the then Camp Murphy (Camp Aguilando), he had to rush to school by whatever transport was available “because I did not have my own car at the time.”

“And so I was then about 25 and after doing the board exams, I felt it was time to settle down and get married,” he said. “And then, fortunately, I found an old schoolmate, meaning not old in that sense, but a schoolmate from way back, 13 years back. And it was Miss Amelita Martinez, who also had graduated from her own school in Boston, Massachusetts.”

His future wife was then majoring in Sports Management. “And so we got together and after six months of sincere, and also intense, courtship, we got married.” After tying the knot, Ramos said he enrolled at the University of the Philippines College of Law on the old Padre Faura campus.

He said his father, former Ambassador Narciso Ramos, was a successful lawyer and diplomat, but getting a law degree would mean another feather in his cap.

“But it turned out that going to UP Law in the Ermita district was too much of my newly married status, and so my wife gave me an ultimatum: It’s either me or that law degree that you want so badly,” he said. “So I said, ‘of course I want you,’ and I gave up the law degree.”

“Now I am known as a law-school dropout from the UP College of Law, then headed by a very imminent, prestigious professor, Dean Vicente Abad Santos,” he said. “But I made that decision. Anyway, at this point in time, at age 88, I have five degrees as doctor of laws honoris causa. Thank you very much.”

Ramos starts his story as a young graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1950.

“I graduated from the US Military Academy, which I entered at 18, after topping the competitive examination of Filipino boys who had just either graduated from high school or were in their first or second year of college,” Ramos said, tapping from his eidetic memory, which never seems to dim with age. This is the advantage of interviewing a president who recalls names, dates and events without consulting anything or anybody but his memory bank.

“So I qualified. I topped the examination, but had to take another examination to prove my proficiency in English. This is an examination given to foreign cadets, and I passed that one also,” he said.

After graduation, he applied for a government scholarship for pensionados (pensioners), which was being given at the time for those already in the US. He qualified and earned a one-and-a-half-year scholarship for his Masters of Civil Engineering degree “in one of the leading science and technology universities in the US, the University of Illinois.”

His US engineering degree safely tucked under his belt, Ramos came home and immediately reported to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). He was already a commissioned officer after graduating from West Point. “Of course, I volunteered for a field assignment, and I was assigned there in the southern military area which was based in Canlubang, Calamba, Laguna.”

He noted the area was where the Hukbalahap movement was very active.

“In fact, it was from Laguna and from Bulacan where the Huks, under Luis Taruc, were literally knocking at the door of Manila,” Ramos revealed.

Then the Korean War intervened and Ramos’s battalion combat team was sent to the war zone.

“I volunteered again and that was when I was assigned to the 20th Battalion Combat team already in Korea. I joined them in January 1952; it was midwinter,” he said. “But after a successful stint including assaulting an enemy-
fortified position, I finished my tour of duty and came back home and then was assigned to a star position in General Headquarters, AFP.”

Ramos was being coy about his Korean exploits. I searched the Internet and found his statement about his role in that war.

“As a platoon leader, what is the job of a reconnaissance leader? To recon the front line—a no man’s land. And what did we do? I had to assault a fortified position of the Chinese communists and wiped them out. And what is this Special Forces group that we commanded in the Army from 1962 to 1965? That was the only remaining combat unit in the Philippine Army.”

Today, to remind everyone of that singular role in 1952, the president proudly wears the medals that adorn his side cap for every official function, along with other medals and ribbons gathered along the way.

Despite a newly attached pacemaker and his doctor’s orders to slow down, he reports for work regularly at his office on the 26th floor of the Urban Bank building in Makati City.

“The stream of visitors never stops, whether invited or not,” he said.

The visitors are all seeking his advice, from the mundane to the bizarre, or simply to want to know where the political wind is blowing, especially before the May 2016 elections.

Ramos’s work ethics is legendary. His office is adorned with wall-to-wall photographs and clippings of his encounters with world leaders, statesmen and diplomats of all stripes and colors. There are photographs, as well, of ordinary people whom he had encountered along the way, sharing his passion for fun and play and his brand of athleticism: golf, sky jumping, scuba diving and many more.

Visitors to Ramos’s office are greeted by the words “Caring, Sharing, Daring.”

“These three little words constitute a powerful challenge to our countrymen and countrywomen to become an irresistible force that will one day truly unite the diverse components of our beloved Philippines as we rendezvous with destiny for a better, more modern and truly bountiful future,” he explained.

It is at this office where FVR, the appellation that his friends and close associates dubbed him, continues to practice his distinct brand of public service through the non-governmental Ramos Peace and Development
Foundation, which he and key members of his former presidential family organized months after they left office.

Around the rooms are overflowing bookshelves and on top of tables and plastered on walls are trophies, plaques, plates, awards, ribbons, citations and mementoes that speak volumes about him.

Whenever Ramos goes on an official mission, he said he immediately writes a report about it and submits it to Malacañang, “whether they read it or not.”

He has written close to 30 books while in retirement and through keynote speeches, roundtable discussions, university convocations, among others. He keeps reminding his successors and other leaders of the urgent things that need to be done for the country and people to achieve a better future.

“Kaya ba natin ito [Can we hack it]?” he would frequently ask his audience, and if the response is lukewarm, he would goad them to shout louder “para marinig sa Malacañang,” or whoever is the target of his indignation.

Many believe that FVR is one of the greatest Philippine presidents.

“In his time in Malacañang, from 1992 to 1998, FVR is best remembered for promoting the principles of people empowerment, a culture of excellence and global competitiveness, focusing on programs to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos. This is evident in the 229 structural/reform laws enacted by the 9th and 10th Congress during his term, achieved principally by building unity, solidarity and teamwork among government and civil-society leaders,” wrote Melandrew T. Velasco, a family biographer and confidant for 15 years.

When he became President in 1992, Ramos promised to build many of the country’s infrastructures. The vow came true, especially roads and bridges, to connect the far-flung localities to the growing cities in many provinces.

During his six-year term, Ramos often went on provincial sorties, accompanied by the media, to visit the various projects he initiated.

“You have to invite me to the inauguration of this bridge,” he would instruct a local government official in charge of the project. He knew that without the pressure of his plan to return a year later to see the project’s completion, the local government official would fall back on schedule and his projects would be in limbo.

That trademark of getting any project completed on time has been FVR’s mantra.

“When did you realize that you were gifted?” the BusinessMirror asked.

Ramos answered the question in a roundabout way. “Well, I went through the experience of World War II as a teenager. I was born in Lingayen, Pangasinan, grew up in the province, studied in public schools until I graduated from Grade 7.”

“It was like that in those days. But the public-school system was of a very high standard even out there in the province. And that is why we have good handwriting and I would say we speak very good English and I’m very thankful for that,” he said.

When he enrolled in first-year high school, the family transferred to Manila.

“As the valedictorian of the Lingayen Elementary School Central, I was qualified to be a scholar at the University of the Philippines High School, libre [free]. And I was very thankful. Of course, my father and my mother had already decided in their own professional interests to also transfer our family home to Manila. So that all coincided very nicely, and that happened in 1940 when I was 12 years old.”

After a year in the city, WW II broke out and Ramos said he had to finish his high school through various means, “including self-study, or taking qualifying examinations during liberation.”

Due to the war’s constraints, he said he had to get his high- school diploma from a girls’ college, Centro Escolar University, “the señoritas’ university,” he said.

“But anyway, all of that experience here and there, I think, qualified me for the hardy life and also a thirst for knowledge. And I opted to go to West Point because it was a free kind of education, although my father, who was a lawyer, wanted me to follow his footsteps and be a lawyer-politician.”

“When did the idea of running for the presidency occur to you?” the BusinessMirror asked.

“Well, that came when I was in my last days as the secretary of National Defense in the Cabinet of the late President Corazon C. Aquino. And the reason I did not just retire since I was already, at that point, 64 years old and definitely retirable, I saw how difficult it was for President Aquino to properly govern our country because of so many coup attempts against her administration and because of my job initially as chief of staff of the Armed Forces and then secretary of Defense.”

He said he had to be in the middle of the fighting, defending against coup attempts. “Fortunately, we prevailed, ‘we’ meaning the Philippine government under Cory prevailed over all of the nine coup attempts against her administration. So in the end I said to myself: ‘Hey, boy, you better go out there and handle the job yourself so that the coup attemps will not start happening all over again.’”

“After all, back in 1986 as the vice chief of staff of the AFP, many of us who were military rebels got involved in the so-called People Power Revolution on Edsa in February 1986, which turned out to be peaceful and resulted in the ejection of the strongman-dictator, the late Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled the country for 20 years: six years or eight years as an elected president and 12 years as a dictator. Of course, this was not acceptable to many of us in the AFP. But that’s another story.”

“How do you want to be remembered?” the BusinessMirror asked.

“Well, simply as a public servant who did his job well and served long, for as long as he was physically able—even long after retirement. To this day, I still consider myself a public servant,” he said.

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