Benito Legarda Jr.
Dr. Benito Legarda Jr. was a lifelong friend of my mother’s, their friendship anchored on a passion for classical music. But I only met him in the 1990s, on the occasion of the transfer of the remains of the late governor-general Francis Burton Harrison from the corner of the North Cemetery where he’d been buried, to a more prominent plot, after reports came out in the papers of the tomb being vandalized and even defiled.
“¿Beniting, que hay?” my father said, as Dr. Legarda popped up beside us, looking cool as a cucumber in the morning heat (he seemed so much older; I would find out much later he was actually a couple of months younger than my dad). He was in a 1970s vintage checkered suit, with an electric blue shirt and a wide, cream-colored bow tie. He was bald, he had an elegant cane, his eyes would vanish when he smiled, but most of all, what caught my attention was that he wore rubber shoes — and carried it off. To this day, he remains my mental definition of the word “panache.”
His passing was noted by the papers, and in articles penned by people who knew him, and in social media posts aplenty. As RayVi Sunico aptly put it, “he was a gentleman when the word meant something.” Considering his great pride in family — his great-grandfather was the Benito Legarda of the First Republic, his mother one of our pioneer female ambassadors — and his longevity, history was, in many respects for himself and his generation, a deeply personal matter. Yet he was a scholar, which meant an openness to all points of view but also a reverence for the truth. And because he was a gentleman, which puts great store on civility as a mark of civilization and respect, he could hold his ground firmly with unfailing courtesy.
This is all the more relevant because for many, particularly those younger than himself, Dr. Legarda was known as a historian, contending on topics that famously or infamously become highly personal. It says something about the nature of the man and not just his scholarship, that his pinpointing the first shot in the Filipino-American War as having taken place in Sampaloc and not in San Juan del Monte was fairly swiftly and near-unanimously adopted as a valuable sorting out of the historical record.
He was his generation’s ambassador and that of a way of life and culture just about extinct. In a recollection about Cesar Virata, he recounted how, in negotiations with Latin American central bankers (the Philippines eventually came to head a bloc composed of us and the Latin Americans in the United Nations), he would speak in Spanish to the bankers on behalf of Virata, and then consult with Virata in Tagalog whenever he needed clarification on some point of policy. He was always eager to share what he knew: When I suggested to the Locsins that he be given a column in the Philippines Free Press, it was approved instantly. His recollections and commentaries appeared in this and many other papers; he was also outspoken on Facebook.
I always thought of him in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu’s influential book, “The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power,” on the schools that produced generations of France’s bureaucrats and technocrats. Though not educated in our own school for producing a state nobility — UP — he obtained his credentials in the ones that produced the United States’: Georgetown and Harvard. Like so many of his class and generation, he devoted himself entirely to the service of his country, in his case by working his way up the ranks of the central bank (together with the Department of Foreign Affairs, a bulwark of meritocracy in our Republic).
His great contributions to our understanding the past were anchored on his own personal history. His appreciation of Hispanic culture and being an economist produced his authoritative work on our economic history under Spain; his family’s role in the Filipino-American War was reflected in his scholarship on the start of this war; and his own personal history and that of his parents are the thread that binds together his collected essays on World War II, originally published in two volumes.
Everyone who encountered him, young and old, were left with some valuable nugget of insight or information. But the awe inspired by his brain should not overshadow one simple fact, as his passing leads to his being eulogized: He was a humorous and kind man — the greatest praise, I think, anyone can be given. On one of the last occasions I saw him, one of our group, a senior lady, had a brief exchange with him that delighted me then, and has stuck with me since.
Distinguished Lady: “Beniting! Bye, See you. Be good!”
Dr. Legarda, with an innocent yet rascally smile: “I don’t know if I’ll be good, but I’ll be careful. And If I’m not, I’ll name it after you.”