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New book recounts the life of the man Quezon called the ?father of the Philippines? -and traits sadly missing today
COMMONWEALTH President Manuel Quezon called Antonio de las Alas ?the greatest man in the country we have ever produced.? What kind of man brought on such praise?

He was a public servant, executive, lawyer, miner, lumberman, banker, insurance man, athlete and a father. His marriage to Natividad Lontoc, which lasted 53 years, produced 12 children. At 81, he remarried Necitas Gueco, then 27, and had two more sons.

His daughters Ma. Pacita ?Ching? de las Alas-Montinola and Carmencita ?Menchu? de las Alas-Concepcion has compressed his life and career into a softbound book, ?Don Antonio de las Alas: The Small Man with a Long Shadow.?

The cover depicts the 5?3? De las Alas, in barong with sleeves rolled up for work and his favorite felt hat. The long shadow suggests his staunch reputation to this day.

?We only knew him as a father, provider and good husband to our mother. We had a peaceful family. We didn?t know why he was always out of the house until we found out he was busy serving the country,? says Montinola.

The book?s portrait of De las Alas comes from his memoirs, his children?s accounts and newspaper clippings. It presents him as a political genius and admirable public figure. His legislative strategies, the moments of fine declamation, the negotiations with the Japanese and the Americans?all the lofty public acts of a prodigious public individual?take center stage.

It also aims to inspire this generation with a man whose public persona was no different from his private one?unlike many of today?s so-called icons.

Era of struggle

De las Alas lived through the era of struggle for Philippine independence. He was born on Oct. 14, 1898, in Taal, Batangas, during the uprising against Spain. His formal education began during the American war. At 13, he enrolled in a public school in Batangas run by American teachers. Advanced for his age, he was teaching English in his barrio school at 14 and finished grade school in three years.

The American District Supervisor saw his potential and encouraged him to take an exam for government pensionados?Filipino scholars sent to America. With tutoring, De las Alas crammed his high school education in three months and scored 84 percent.

He took up Law at the University of Indiana and his Master of Law at Yale University, finishing with the highest honor. In his youth, De las Alas had expressed his intense nationalism. His valedictory speech was devoted to Philippine freedom. ?Let us tackle fearlessly the problems with our own energy and resources,? he said.

De las Alas? political genius, foresight and assertive public geniality would henceforth be for the protection of Philippine interests and for championing the needs of the poor.

Unprecedented achievements

To this day, his achievements are unprecedented. De las Alas served seven American Governor Generals, including as Executive Secretary to Leonard Wood.

Admired for his wily authority, he was congressman of the first district of Batangas for four terms; elected House Speaker in a fractious Congress and was twice member of the Constitutional Convention?the oldest member at age 84, and who was in the most important committees.

As Agriculture Secretary, he espoused the chairmanship of the irrigation program. He was Finance Secretary in Quezon?s time, and board member of the Central Bank in Quirino?s time.

Anticipating a burgeoning population, he built more roads, bridges and ports throughout the country and launched the first long-distance phone call when he was Secretary of Public Works and Communication.

De las Alas was always content with his position, never seeking anything higher. He wrote that one could not stay too long in politics unless ?he violated public trust and took advantage of his position to enrich himself.?

Joining the private sector, he served 22 corporations?a record?where he was simultaneously either chairman of the board or president. He steered these companies to high profitability and was also the president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce for three terms.

In finance and investment, he was a visionary, responsible for many firsts such as credit life insurance, the first variable insurance concept, the preneed memorial plan, and the first investment bank in the country.

He forged a partnership with Alfonso Yuchengco to build financial services companies?including Great Pacific Life Assurance Corporation. As president of the Philippine Lumber Association, he lobbied for the protection of the forests.

In sports, he was the first president of the Philippine National Olympic Committee. With Jorge Vargas, he built the Rizal Memorial Stadium and introduced cycling and table tennis as national sports.

Despite his busy schedule, De las Alas was also involved in civic work as chairman of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes and Philippine National Red Cross fund drives.

Surviving the war

Instead of a standard chronological account, the book on De las Alas has human interest anecdotes, pictures of his many activities, from meetings with dignitaries to family milestones.

?He was not prayerful but we learned from him. His prayer is his service to the Lord and the country,? says Montinola. ?Papa taught me that in government, I am a servant of the people. He taught accountability?not to waste people?s money, and to treat everyone with kindness as we might need their help later.?

To Concepcion, ?Papa was perfection.? Despite his VIP status at work, with love and humility, he treated his wife like a queen of the home. ?They never argued. There was always respect,? she recalls.

He instilled family hierarchy and simplicity. The government car was never used for personal service. Instead, he made his children take the horse carriage. Dinner at home was always an exchange of pleasant stories, never about gossip.

?He?d come home at 6 p.m. He said a government executive should finish his work in the office and not bring his work home,? says Concepcion.

One of the most dramatic moments in their family life happened during the war. De las Alas? favorite daughter, Natividad or Neny, then married to Ramon Cojuangco, was killed by the Japanese when she was six months pregnant. De las Alas was a man who never revealed his emotions, but this time he wept.

During the Japanese Occupation, De las Alas, then Minister of Finance, and some Cabinet officials formed a Filipino Executive Commission to cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Filipinos. The Americans formally charged him with treason and sent him first to the Iwahig Penal Colony, then to Bilibid Prison.

Meanwhile, the De las Alases? Malate residence was burned. His sons-in-law, Cojuangco and Ambrosio Padilla, raised funds for his bail, while daughter Lourdes ?Lily? de las Alas-Padilla took the family members into the basement of the Padilla home.

Montinola recalls that in better times, they never envied their friends when they had new gowns because they were happy with what they had. In that rough patch of their lives, the girls didn?t mind queuing with other people to get their ration of food and clothing. They would also travel to Hacienda Luisita, where Doña Isidra Cojuangco gave them clothes, rice and sugar not only for their use but also to sell.

In 1946, De las Alas was cleared of treason charges. His ?political collaboration was a patriotic duty,? said the Court. The family was reunited, and he started getting job offers.

Federal government

If a comprehensive version of De las Alas? life would be rewritten, Montionola says she would have expounded on her father?s endorsement of federalism. During the Constitutional Convention in 1971, he pointed out the Constitution?s flaws and first articulated that a federal system of government was suited to the Philippines.

He envisioned that the country would be divided into 20 states. All government powers would lie in the various states, but other powers such as diplomatic ties would be handed over to the Republic. A parliament would serve as the lawmaking body, with a Premier heading the country, whose term lasted four years. A president with a term lasting for a year would have a ceremonial role.

?This system provides ample elasticity in government,? wrote De las Alas. ?[The Premier] can be changed the moment he can no longer count on the confidence of the parliament.?

Second marriage

Concepcion adds the siblings would have taken a kinder look at his second marriage. De las Alas? age gap with Gueco was 54 years; the children were appalled. But De las Alas insisted that a younger wife would look after him.

?We were selfish then. In hindsight, it was providential because she took care of him and bore him two sons,? she says.

The daughters? recollections and descriptions give some sense of what made their father?s feats monumental in his time, and why they are still important today.

But, ultimately, their portrait of the man Quezon dubbed the ?father of the Philipines? inspires readers to admire De las Alas more for who he was than for what he did.