You could be a third of his age, and he would still insist you call him, simply, “Miguel.” While he was alive I could never bring myself to call him that, but in death, at least this once, I am abiding by his wish.
A person held in great affection by those who knew him is easy to embalm in the sticky honey of praise. But it is well to remember, particularly in a time of farewell, that what endeared Miguel to so many was not perfection (though he was a perfectionist when it came to matters of protocol), but his dedication despite his human frailties.
In 1987, Miguel was already 62 years old, serving as chief of presidential protocol to President Cory Aquino. In that year’s coup attempt, he drove to the Palace at 2:30 a.m. even as fighting was going on all around. Unidentified soldiers ordered him to get out of his car, and he had to proceed to the Palace, on foot, over the Ayala Bridge, and then manned the phones.
This was the same coup attempt in which the future President Benigno S. Aquino III was seriously wounded. Miguel would be called upon to serve the son just as he had served the mother; to his great credit, he did so without that sense of entitlement too many of those who had served the mother demanded of the son. Instead, he did his best to demonstrate—and encourage others to understand—that the job of a loyal subaltern in the presidential service is to lighten, in the many small ways that matter, the tremendous burden the office places on the shoulders of the chief executive.
He kept his own counsel, submitting memoranda from time to time, but without either grandstanding or pestering the president. When listened to, he was pleased; when he did not get his way, he was philosophical. He was, first and foremost, loyal. He was proud of the opportunity to serve—but not proprietary about appointive office.
When President Aquino asked him to be protocol head, Miguel was still recovering from a heart bypass operation. I am personally convinced the call to service was a call to vigor. Because there was no other way for Miguel to accept a challenge than to meet it head on, in the manner he had been an occasional matador in his younger years.
In 2011, in Beijing, as we sat in the Hall of Purple Light in the Zongnanhai, listening to Premier Wen Jiabao silkily trying to apply pressure on President Aquino who was deftly resisting the premier’s lobbying on North Rail, I tried to keep awake by observing the rest of the Philippine delegation. To my great amusement I spotted Ambassador Miguel Perez-Rubio in the act of surrendering to sleep. He slowly, gently, seemed to focus his attention on his hands, folded across his lap, then closed his eyes, and nodded off.
But I swear he had some sort of spider sense, because as the meeting began to wind down, he opened his eyes, looked up, and proceeded to spring out of his overstuffed chair just as his Chinese counterpart did. Even as both men—and the Chinese protocol person was likely half Miguel’s age—escorted their principals, Miguel had the more difficult job. Premier Wen simply glided into an antechamber, while President Aquino in characteristic style, galloped out of the room and into his waiting official car, leaving everyone winded, as he always did—except for Miguel, three decades the President’s senior, but his match every brisk step of the way.
The Americans call their World War II generation their Greatest Generation, and I happen to think ours can claim the same title, too. Not just for enduring adversity, but for their stamina, too. Miguel had so many stories, of being a teenage guerrilla imprisoned and tortured, then afterwards seeking out the ruins of his family’s home, to see the grisly site of the horrific massacre of his family by the Japanese—and all throughout walking, walking, walking, starving, and suffering.
The tragedies in his life dimmed only one thing, perhaps, and that was religious certainty. Though as he told me, the last time we saw each other at Memorare Manila last February, “I am now facing my next great adventure.” His voice was weak, but his grip was strong; the news he shared was grim, but his smile was infectious.
He lived through and saw enough to break any man; he could have become cynical, ruthless, or complacent. He had his share of personal sorrows and problems, just as he did his fair measure of successes in business. But for every loss or reversal, what he never did, was surrender.