Roquito Ablan Jr., Upsilonian brother to Aquino and Marcos

In Photo: Roquito Ablan Jr. (seated) with son Kris Ablan and the author

By Leandro Anton Castro | Special to the BusinessMirror

‘I’VE lived a very colorful life.”

That is how my senior fraternity brother, former Rep. Roquito Ablan Jr. of Ilocos Norte, described his life as he narrated his fond memories of college, the fraternity and his life in politics.

That is how my senior fraternity brother, former Ilocos Norte Rep. Roquito Ablan Jr., described his life as he narrated his fond memories of college, the fraternity and his life in politics.

Ablan, 84, is a lawyer and a former congressman, who served terms in 1965 to 1998, and, eventually, again in 2001 until 2010. He is also a member of the Upsilon Sigma Phi, the oldest Greek-letter organization in Asia, and is based in the University of the Philippines.

Being a junior fellow in the fraternity, I am often fascinated by the fraternity stories of the seniors across decades. Stories of initiations, Marcos-Ninoy, or just random stories in our campus tambayan are among the staple topics during fellowships. Having to meet Ablan, I knew I had to pick his mind.

Fraternity memoirs

“I ONLY enter the best, and that’s the Upsilon,” he answered as I asked him why he joined the fraternity.

“Most of these people, who were there [in UP] tried to enter the best fraternity, and the best fraternity is Upsilon,” Ablan said.

The former congressman recalled that it was a cousin who failed to finish the initiation process that inspired him to join the fraternity. He loved the challenge, he said—the more the quitters, the more he was challenged to get over it.

Ablan joined the fraternity in 1950, the same year with late Sen. Benigno S. “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., making them batchmates.

In Upsilon culture, batchmates are usually the closest people a fellow will have in the fraternity. Batchmates are “the greatest gifts” one can get from the brotherhood, I remember a senior “brod” telling me.

However, more than batchmates, Ablan and Ninoy were neophyte buddies during their initiations.

Back in his time, Ablan said fraternity masters (the ones who oversee the initiations) assign neophytes to work in pairs so that they look out for each other. Ablan ended up paired with Ninoy, who also happened to be his classmate and seatmate in law school at that time.

“We [Aquino and Ablan] were both favorites to be initiated because we were not hiding from them. We were looking for our masters so that they would get tired of us. But instead, the more they initiated us,” Ablan recalled.

They ended up being neophytes for two semesters, Ablan recalled in jest.

Among his fondest memories of him and Ninoy being neophytes was a day they were dropped off at a university in Manila. They were asked then to beg people for money the whole day.

“How much did you usually collect, brod?” I asked.

“Kung nandoon ka buong araw, maka-bente mil ka,” he said.

“Bente mil? 1950s? Ang laki-laki noon, Dad!” asked Kris Ablan, Roquito Ablan’s son, also an Upsilonian.

“If they gave you P100. Maawa ka naman. Nag-aantay under the sun doon,” the older Ablan said in jest.

Ablan, Marcos and Ninoy

MORE than being close with Ninoy, he was also close with fraternity brother Ferdinand E. Marcos, a staunch political rival of Ninoy, and both their senior in the fraternity (Marcos joined the fraternity in 1937).

“I was a Marcos’s boy,” Ablan said.

He recalled he grew close with the former president way back when he was young in Ilocos Norte. Ablan used to run errands for his father to lend Bar exam review materials to the then-detained Marcos. Marcos grew fond of Ablan.

“We became friends, but even he [Marcos] initiated me,” Ablan recalled in jest about having to report as a neophyte to the Marcos home in Ortigas. “Noong Bar [exams] na, pumunta ako sa kanya, na-initiate mo na ako, sabihin mo naman kung ano questions, kasi alam ko na alam mo,’”Ablan said as he recalled one of his visits to Marcos.

“That’s one thing I can’t do for you,” he remembered his senior brod told him. Ablan was also known to be a close political ally of Marcos, having been a loyal member to the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, until his defection in 1998, when both him and Ferdinand “Bongbong” E. Marcos Jr. ran for governor under the party. The former congressman believes it was not Marcos who had Ninoy assassinated. In fact, he said, they were close.

He remembered having to pack Ninoy in a laundry cart, and smuggle him inside Marcos’s room in Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Ninoy and Marcos would often hug each other during those times, Ablan said, and occasionally, with tears. “Marcos would tell me, ‘Ano ginagawa ni Ninoy?’” he said.

“Kayong dalawa mag-usap. Huwag na akong pakialaman diyan. E, di dadal-hin ko doon,” Ablan would often say.

In fact, he said in an earlier interview, Marcos tried to exhaust all means to protect Ninoy when he was about to arrive in 1983, even ordering his men to escort Ninoy in a presidential chopper. That did not materialize, however.

Ablan was on his way from Laoag to the Manila International Airport, on August 21, 1983, to secure Ninoy.

“I arrived at the airport 12 minutes after Ninoy was shot. Someone met me and said, ‘Wala na si Ninoy.’ I cried like a baby when I found out what happened. If I arrived on time, I could have escorted Ninoy from the aircraft and he would not have been shot, or I would have been shot along with him on the stairs,” Ablan said.

Life after politics

TODAY Ablan, now retired from politics, stays in his home in Makati, with his family and grandchildren.

He only has kind words for the newly elected Upsilonians in public office, including Sens. Richard J. Gordon of fraternity batch 1968, and Francis N. Pangilinan of batch 1981.

“You know, being a public servant, you have to do it all your life, I was still young when I was already helping people,” Ablan said.

“To be truthful to themselves, to be true to their beliefs, to stand by their belief. Kasi no matter where you are, kung alam nila na tried and tested, na true ka, they [people] will stay with you,” Ablan advised younger Upsilonians today engaged in politics and governance.

Up to this day, Ablan still very much welcomes his fraternity brods, he said. “If I can do something for a brod, I do it. If not, I help them,” he said.

Fellowship is home

AS a junior fellow, I was glad to have heard stories from a senior more than five decades apart from me. If there was a stark realization, it is that the line from the Upsilon hymn is, indeed, true, “The years cannot break us.”

Truly, fellowship is home.