There are friends with whom one doesn’t count the years because they are seamlessly embedded in one’s life, with whom time flows unheeded.
One such is Dr. Jaime “Jimmy” Laya, the former Central Bank governor, education minister, UP dean, culture administrator (Intramuros Administration, NCCA, CCP), art collector, author and columnist. He’s one of those people for whom the term multi-hyphenated persona must have been coined—a left-and-right-brainer, some describe the type; a renaissance man, others say.
Covering him in his various transitions in life—from government service, corporate leadership to personal milestones—didn’t seem like work, but in fact, was a learning, if not enriching, journey.
I remember how, as a young Central Bank governor, the youngest the country has had, he toured us around the bank’s art collections. He’s responsible for the institution’s priceless art collections, and more important, having them documented in collectible coffee-table books.
On one such tour, we told him—in casual jest—if he could, one day, write for us if and when he retired. He did—on art, among other things. And we’ve had a few publishing attempts together, even collaborations, through the decades.
Not many people note that Laya is the son of one of the country’s foremost novelists and educators, Juan Laya, whose book, “Lahing Kayumanggi,” I remember my mother telling me, was a must-read for teachers like her who taught Pilipino in the 1950s.
The older Laya, who died in a car accident when he was barely 40, wrote the novel “His Native Soil,” which won the Commonwealth Literary Award for the Novel in 1940. His only son, Jaime, has the picture of his father being handed the award by President Manuel Quezon at Metropolitan Theater, with statesman and Pulitzer-award-winning writer Carlos P. Romulo looking on.
Filipino arts and letters
Apparently, the younger Laya grew up in a home immersed in Filipino arts and letters, which would explain his burning interest in Philippine culture and his life-long involvement in its promotion and preservation. For instance, there was his pioneering work in restoring Intramuros through the Intramuros Administration, and more recently, in training young Filipino artisans in the near-extinct crafts, through the school/foundation, Escuela Talyer.
The only boy in a brood of girls, he got used to being left alone to pursue his own interests while growing up. This meant, for instance, watching plays and scouring Filipiniana libraries alone.
I remember how he and his wife, Alice, opened their home to us picketing newsmen (we had just walked out of Manila Times) and fed us dinner one night in the mid-’80s, as the country transitioned from the Edsa Revolution.
And almost a decade later, in the aftermath of the tragic 1990 earthquake where he lost his wife, he spoke to us in indescribable grief about how many years, how many days and hours his marriage to one of the loveliest women we’d known, had been. Indeed, he must be the only man we’ve known who knows by heart the exact number of minutes he’s spent with his spouse. The soul remembers, we must have told him.
I remember how, when I was to cross over to corporate management from journalism, he sat me down at lunch to explain why and how corporate life was vastly different from that of a journalist. He gave me three pieces of advice which not only proved to be an eye-opener, but which I also tried hard to follow. (In time, I will reveal and pass on the advice.)
The advice was valuable, for it was one cobbled through the decades in a mixed milieu of the academe (apart from UP, Laya went to Georgia Tech for his Masters and later, for his doctorate, Stanford University in Palo Alto), government service and corporate (he is chair of Philtrust and sits on the board of corporations).
Indeed, Laya belongs to a breed of men that’s getting more rare—one who leaves an imprint across the spectrums of politics, business, arts and culture and society. It’s the generation of Filipino gentlemen which respects women and doesn’t diminish them with jokes, which is steeped in civility and decency.
His multifaceted background made his birthday celebration, at the Champagne Room of Manila Hotel last Jan. 7, an interesting mix of guests, even of political color. It was the fourth anniversary of his 20th year, he said, or, for a non-numbers person like me, his 80th birthday.
In an invite showing a BenCab punk drawing that said, “In Denial,” guests were asked to come in their favorite garb of youth or childhood. Now that would be like opening the floodgates of Philippine history.
Many adhered to the dress code—women, like Bambi Harper and Marianne Ong, came in their Assumption uniforms; indeed the Assumption uniform was worn by generations of guests at the dinner.
Batangueño patriarch Tony Pastor came in his Boy Scout uniform. Nenuca Blardony and Letty Hahn were in Girl Scout uniforms.
Easily the most interesting was the birthday celebrator himself, who came in a fencing costume—a choice he tried to justify in his remarks later that night: “… like what I wore in my PE course as a sophomore. I had to pick among basketball, football, tennis and decided fencing was the least life-threatening. It was a mistake….”
Former prime minister Cesar Virata was in barong. Laya’s friends from business and culture, like ex-CCP heads Bal Endriga, Nes Jardin, Dr. Raul Sunico, National Museum director Jeremy Barns, Dr. Joven Cuanang, Alfredo Roca were also around, although not in costume.
When he thanked the guests, after an enjoyable performance by the Rockin’ ’60s led by Dero Pedero, Laya recalled the phases of his life, and the people in them. Excerpts:
“My First Score Years (1939-1959) were with my sisters, cousins, neighbors and schoolmates. My sister Eleanor lives here but my twin sisters, Susan and Trina, Maryknollers all, have come from Maryland, halfway around the world…
“At UP, the new BA and Engineering honor graduate Cesar Virata was my BA 101 professor…
“Walter and Annabel got married early and gave me pointers on how to behave the night before my first date with Alice Sandoval, my future wife, and 25 years later, lent me a coaster for her funeral…
“My Second Score Years (1959-1979) were in graduate study abroad, working and raising a family…
“Cesar Virata’s paths and mine crossed frequently. He was my boss at UP and SGV and sent me to Stanford for graduate work…
“I met Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. at the Batasang Pambansa—opposition stalwart with whom I fenced yearly over the budget…”
But what must have made Laya really happy that night was that his children flew home from abroad, where they have thriving careers, to celebrate his milestone.
His eldest, Mianne, now a consultant at McKinsey & Co. in Madrid, came with her Spanish husband, Carlos Ortega, and their children, Diego and Isabel, who are now in college at Harvard and who both spent a summer doing volunteer work in Tacloban.
His only son, Juan Claudio (Jamesy), flew in from Singapore with his wife, Kate Ansbro, where he is partner in KPMG Singapore. They brought their young daughters Sophie and Ana.
Her youngest, Amelia (Amy), came from Washington where she works at World Bank.
Among his children, Dr. Alexandra (Sandra) is the only one based here, with her husband, Mario Zinampan, and their daughter, Irene, a champion gymnast at British School. Sandra is a noted gastroenterologist whom many netizens might be familiar with as the doctor of Joshua, Kris Aquino’s son.
Typical of his dry wit, he explained the night: “Now, therefore, seems the ideal time to celebrate, when the Champagne Room can still overflow with friends who walk, see, hear, talk, and recognize.”