Neil Llamanzares and Mary Grace Poe grew up in the same Greenhills neighborhood. She was 16 and a student at Assumption, while he attended the Jesuit-run Xavier School.
His father, Teddy, was a leading ENT specialist; his mom, Carol, a top child psychologist.
His cousin, Camille Llamanzares Sevilla, says that growing up, Neil was known to his cousins as the naughtier brother. “Maybe it’s because his older brother, Michael, a painter, was more contemplative and less gregarious. But Neil’s playfulness was never mean. He and their siblings were always polite and well-mannered.”
It was a quiet, normal childhood.
Cousin Candy Piedad, who is about the same age as Neil, recalls playing with them, riding go-carts in their house. Her only memory was that of having a great time; no fights would ensue because they would take turns.
Camille says that through the years, Neil has maintained that fun and playful nature.
“At our last Christmas reunion, he was the game master. Kaya lang he teases and jokes a lot, so you had better learn not to get pikon when he’s around!” She remembers Neil to always have been the protective kuya to his younger sister, Rachel.
Grace and Neil met at a summer tennis camp, and soon he began courting her. Camille says Grace told her once that she remembers how Neil would always have his Star Wars thermos bottle. He had no idea at all that she was a child of show-biz royalty.
‘He’s your dad?!’
One day, as he sat in the living room of her house, he noticed a portrait of Susan Roces and thought she looked familiar.
And then FPJ came home early from his shooting. Grace kissed him on the cheek and said “Good evening, Popsie.”
Neil, who clearly knew who he was, greeted him.
When FPJ was out of sight, he asked her, “Isn’t he Fernando Poe Jr.? He’s your dad?!”
Grace thought it was endearing that he didn’t know, and it made her more comfortable around him.
Longtime family friend Baby K. Jimenez remembers the trip she made with Susan to attend Grace’s graduation at Boston College.
“He was already there in Boston when Susan and I flew in, and I teased Susan, “Baka engaged na…” Susan calmly said, “I don’t think so.”
“However, toward graduation day, Grace took me aside and asked if I would be in Manila in July the following year. I said no, and asked her why. ‘We are getting married.’”
And so it was that they tied the knot in Manila on July 27, 1991. Grace was 22. This year marks their silver anniversary.
Joanna Ongpin Duarte and Ronna Reyes Sieh are two of Grace Poe’s closest friends.
Joanna was her classmate at Assumption and has known Neil for as long as Grace has. Ronna and Grace were roommates at Boston College, and Ronna has known Neil since their Boston years. Grace introduced Ronna to her husband, Stephen. Neil went to the University of San Francisco.
Joanna says, “Neil is a super steady man. He is quiet and shy but he is very sweet and always demonstrates his love and support for family without being showy. He is truly a friend to Grace and the best dad to their children.”
According to Ronna, those who know Neil know that he is a man of untarnished integrity.
“He is amazingly even-keeled and a devoted family man. Throughout the 25 years, not once have I seen him lose his temper. He is very gentle-mannered and was raised in a stable home with loving and supportive working parents.”
Neil is the love of Grace’s life. “He’s a lot like FPJ in the sense that he is soft-spoken and a perfect gentleman.”
To paraphrase the saying, behind every successful woman is a man who loves and supports her unconditionally. That is what Neil is to Grace, off and on the campaign trail.
‘He validates her’
Joanna explains, “He helps keep the campaign on budget and within limits set by the Comelec. He helps strategize, in the sense that he gives Grace immediate feedback to her performances or speeches so she can do better the next time. But honestly, he is actually full of praises for her because he really is so proud of her and believes in her. He validates her every day.”
Ronna echoes this. “Throughout this campaign, Grace went home almost every night, no matter how late, even if she had to wake up at 4 a.m. the next day. Neil provided her the emotional support to weather the huge emotional toll of this campaign, especially the malicious and personal attacks.
“People have lauded Grace for her calm and composed demeanor, and part of it is because she really has a secure and strong support system.
“Once, while on the campaign trail, I sent him photos of Grace, and he responded that she looked really pretty. I thought it was cute. Grace has a secure marriage to a man who is so principled and has real love, respect and admiration for her.”
As a father to their children he is very hands-on, more so while Grace was on the campaign trail and he had to hold the fort.
Ronna recalls seeing him in the mall last Christmas with their youngest daughter, picking out a Christmas dress. “There was no entourage with them, just the two of them going through children’s clothes, and father and daughter holding up and comparing some of her choices.
“He is great with children. One of my daughters reminded me recently that a few years ago, Tito Neil helped her with her homework when she was in grade one.”
Ronna says that in the 25 years she has known him, he has never cared for trappings of power or fame. “If you poll all his friends, the most common descriptions would be his calm demeanor and humility. He met me for lunch in Makati once, driving himself in a simple car from Quezon City.
“When Grace was announcing her bid and there was a gathering of supporters, and they were running out of seats, instead of asking the handlers to set up more chairs, he himself picked up a stack and set it up for some of the elderly coming in. Many of the people didn’t know who he was, and that didn’t matter to Neil.”