Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc was an icon of democracy and press freedom, the INQUIRER’s editor in chief for 24 years, and my boss for 10.
As a journalism student, I read about LJM in textbooks—a hero of Edsa, LJM’s brand of gutsy journalism toppling a 20-year dictatorship and restoring press freedom in the country. At the time, she already seemed larger than life—how is this woman even real, I asked myself.
There’s a Metric song that goes, “They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes.” I suppose that just meant heroes were better off as abstract concepts, confined to books that extolled their virtues—or perhaps exaggerated them.
This is not true for all heroes, and it certainly did not hold for LJM. When I came to work for the INQUIRER in 2005, I realized soon enough that the woman whom I once viewed as “unreal” was as real as it gets—and was truly larger than life, no exaggerations about it.
Stepping into the newsroom for the first time as a wide-eyed newbie, I could already tell just how revered The Boss was, but truly the most surprising thing of all was her warmth.
As a reliever at the National desk, from time to time I have had to answer a phone call or two with LJM on the other end. “That distinct drawl,” as people are wont to say. It made my knees shiver, because how exactly do you not stutter?
A few months in, I had already been introduced to various voices and tempers, but always, The Boss ended her phone calls with a kind tone and a thank you, and that was where I took my cue: This is how it’s going to be in this newsroom.
For a while, life was like that. When I moved to Research—a department directly under her office—we got to work with each other more often. She always had good words to say about our work—never a cruel sentiment ever, not even when she was asking for a missing detail or something.
Her heart has always been with the troops. In fact, she has always been one to spoil them. For Christmas, she always made it a point to give gifts to Research with a signed note.
Ever gracious and generous.
Once, addressing an Editorial afterparty filled with the Unlucky and the Unhappy (read: mga talunan sa raffle), she decided to give away cash prizes. She gamely posed for pictures, making wacky faces without having to be told, “Ma’am, wacky na-man!” She was a true delight.
That we lost her on Christmas Eve—in the midst of a holiday we knew she loved dearly—I just had to ask this again: How is this even real?
In 2014, when we had to work on the follow-up series on Benhur Luy’s hard drive, for many days I stayed in LJM’s office to work on the files. In one terrifying moment, I remember sitting beside LJM on her desk with my laptop open and my spreadsheet on display. “Show me,” she said, and I did and it was— how do you explain it—nerve-fraying.
Later, I’d remember feeling so severely out of place at a dinner with The Boss to celebrate, and I will never forget how she thanked our team for the good attitude we showed throughout the making of that series.
Truth: I have never once dreamed of becoming a writer, nor can I ever be an enterprising investigative journalist, but as a researcher, I think the mindset with which you approach the work is of utmost importance. That LJM was also looking at attitude—the how of the thing—is a reminder I will take to my own grave.
LJM was also the ultimate Read-Along ambassador—hell, she gave that program its name, and was the one who suggested we bring celebrities as readers. It started as a small project that was only supposed to cater to, at most, 25 kids on a Saturday inside the INQUIRER library in 2007. Here we are eight years later: Twenty-five simultaneous sessions in a single day, five two-day festivals, seven awards and thousands of kids served.
I still regret not insisting hard enough that we invite her to tell a story before the kids. What a story that would have been. The thing I will miss the most—there were many little things about her, from the way she walked around the office to her voice on the phone—but really, what I will truly miss the most is That Small Moment.
I always know it. She calls one night, maybe at 8, to ask me for a printout or something, and I always come to her so slowly because I am trying not to disturb her. By this time she’s already reading dozens of stories and pages, and I usually just stand there for a few minutes waiting for an opening.
And I remember her face as she turns to me, in That Small Moment looking at me and recognizing me and smiling at me. “Yes, Kate?” she would say. And then, “Thank you.”
That I would never have the pleasure of interrupting her again is a heartbreak I will carry always from here on.
The author is Inquirer’s Research Section head.