Mr. Washington SyCip and I sat on the board of Synergeia, a non-profit organization to raise educational standards, for over ten years. He was a wealthy businessman, and the regularity of the meetings gave me a chance to study a person of that station closely.
He was a delight to see wearing, every so often, a bright and colorful British India shirt or a custom- made barong with intricate stitching. It was as if he gave notice that he was different from his boring colleagues in crumpled linen and bland barongs. He would bring a copy of the latest New Yorker magazine already opened and pages dog-eared. There are very few erudite men like him in this country who could converse and analyze a recent exhibit he had seen or a book he had read.
My first impression of Mr. SyCip was at a training center he owned in the province of Cavite, which had many rooms, large auditoriums and a huge property that also held, amidst a verdant forest and coconut trees, a simple but fitting marble monument to his father Albino SyCip. Synergeia was then just a ragtag group of people with many public-school teachers, principals and mayors to bond with and share our vision, including a young slipper-and-jeans-wearing mayor named Jesse Robredo. Mr. SyCip lent the facilities several times for free, which helped considerably, and because he hosted all our board meetings at his 14th floor office, or covered a financial shortfall, Synergeia was the most financially stable in all my non-profit career, and it had a reasonable endowment to boot.
I recall a trip years back with Mr. SyCip to Cotabato to visit the municipalities and the teachers we helped. It was an armed convoy, since the American Ambassador was with us and there were Army personnel stationed every 50 meters on both sides of the road in the many kilometers we traveled.
We inspected a schoolhouse with Filipino Muslim teachers and remarked at how new the desks were. The teachers said after the latest bombing, desks had to be made, but since they had not been paid their salaries for close to a year they relied on their husbands to buy the wood and make them. I was quite stunned by the teachers’ dedication. Mr. SyCip simply stated as he shook the teachers’ hands, “The rich are not as generous as you think.”
In the many forums where he spoke he would be asked why he concentrated on education for his philanthropy. His eyes would light up, thankful for the opportunity to tell a story I heard many times from him. He was, he related, a product of the public-school system in Manila, and he remembered the very high standards exacted on students. The American public school system, which was planted in our country at the turn of the century, was rigorous and molded students to excel in all areas. A secular education was intent on making smarter students imbued with democratic ideals, rather than the cloistered, feudal and devotee students emphasized by the Catholic schools. Mr. SyCip was quite proud of his public schooling and Synergeia’s effort to overhaul and upgrade the country’s broken school system was the likely choice for parting with his largesse and returning the gratitude to the schools that made him.
I’m grateful to Mr. SyCip for a project I do at Synergeia. The main thrust of our work is raising the reading and comprehension levels of students, heightening teacher skills, developing managerial procedures with school principals and creating a synergy among local governments, parents and educators to push education goals further and faster. I managed to insert an arts education component, which also encompassed the teaching of history, literature and culture. For over a decade, in the most remote of barrios, and with my projector, I gushed over an Amorsolo, identified Rizal and Bonifacio and read literary passages by our local authors, which kept the teachers fascinated.
One significant donor to our overall work took a dim view of arts education, and Synergeia would therefore draw from the unrestricted fund of donors like Mr. SyCip’s to continue my work.
At one of my Powerpoint presentations to the board on the cultural topics I present to educators and ways to engage them to think of the arts, I noticed Mr. SyCip's attentiveness and, later, when the board meeting ended, he pulled me aside and said, “I want the students not just to be literate and be able to read instructional manuals. I want them to read and be inspired by a poem, to read and enjoy a museum. I want them to love a ballet and be moved by an orchestra. All the wonders you and I take for granted.”
Next time I’m in Tawi-Tawi casting my projector light onto a makeshift screen, I shall be even more descriptive and tantalizing with my audience and give a fond thanks to Mr. Washington SyCip.
Originally posted in https://www.facebook.com/john.silva.3979/posts/10155647722449976
John L. Silva is executive director of the Ortigas Library, a research library in Manila.
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