Inspiration

Fathers Are the Greatest Teachers: A Daughter's Letter to Her Dad

A tribute to the late Melito Salazar, Jr., former chairman and president of the Chamber of Commerce, by his daughter Maileen Salazar.
IMAGE MATTHIAS ZOMER / PEXELS
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I was sitting in a darkened auditorium recently, on another school visit that New York City parents inflict upon themselves in their driven quest to survey the crowded landscape of schools to find the best one for their golden children, quasi-listening to the headmaster give his speech on the excellence of his particular institution when I heard something that gave me pause. He was talking about the difference teachers can make in a child’s life and how every one of us can remember a teacher who really made an impact on us when we were young.

LESSONS FROM MY GREATEST TEACHER

This particular statement struck me because I realized that while I could remember some teachers’ names, I really could not distinctly name anyone from grade school, high school, or even college who made such a profound impact on my life that I could trace the trajectory of my scholarship, success, or worldview to this one person. And that was odd. I know my memory has never been the best, as multiple lost wallets, keys and acquaintances’ names can attest but to not have this primary experience of teacher impact seemed almost impossible.

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Then it hit me. Of course. How could any teacher I ever met in the course of my schooling make as much difference as a teacher who I lived with and has watched over me since I was born? I speak, in this case, of my father. My father was many things—a newspaper columnist, a former government official with the Board of Investments, Department of Trade and Industry, and Central Bank, a member of the board of various companies, and an active member and leader of various community organizations such as The Rotary Club, FINEX, Pan Xenia, and Vanguard, but I suspect that if you ask him about his primary identity, he would pick 'teacher.'


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Melito Salazar was many things—a newspaper columnist, a former government official with the Board of Investments, Department of Trade and Industry, and Central Bank, a member of the board of various companies, and an active member and leader of various community organizations.

He started out as a professor at the College of Business at UP Diliman. Most recently, he was dean of CEU’s business school but he didn't stop at these titles. My father was a teacher in the way he carried himself, the way he spoke, the way he worked with the various teams he had been called upon to lead. He spoke with authority, but also with the conviction that those who interacted with him left his presence a little bit better, in their work, and in the way they moved in the world. He asked a lot from his students and his teams, but only because he didn't want them complacent; he was aware of the potential they could achieve.

I can’t tell you how many of his students would tell me of how they loved having my dad as a professor, how he was such a great teacher and mentor to them, how he made a difference in their lives.

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He was always teaching, even at home. There were no stern lectures for us, that was not his style. What he did instead was to not hide the truth of the world from us. He talked to us, over our rambling three-hour weekend dinners, of his concerns, of the country’s concerns, and how to navigate through these conflicts. Injustice and oppression under the Marcos regime were discussed but our parents were careful to admonish us to keep these discussions at home, away from the danger of neighbors’ ears. And after Martial Law ended, and the EDSA revolution was done, there were even more spirited discussions on the way forward for our young country.

A MORAL HERO

My father taught me that you could work in government in the Philippines and move through this complicated, fractured system with principle and conviction. He talked about the million-peso bribes he turned down to let someone’s son into UP or to approve various government contracts. Each time he said no. “The only thing you will die with is your good name.” He always said. And he was determined for his good name to stay intact. He might have given up riches and security, but what he had gained was trust. Through various government administrations and changes of people in power, they knew that his decisions, opinions, and advice were not driven by personal vendettas or political favors. Melito Salazar was trusted.

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As Sam Harris once said, “You shouldn’t have to be St. Francis of Assisi to act well in the world, but there are systems where the incentives are bad enough that you really have to be a moral hero to be just basically decent. All of the incentives are pointing the other way.” My father taught me never to take the easy way and to be a moral hero even when it is hard.

As he was finally retiring from government to go into the private sector many years ago, an election scandal engulfed the presidency. The civic organization that he led took a stand and he spoke out on national television and became a target. Friends in the administration cautioned that he was now on these dissident lists that Malacanang kept. At the time, the death toll for journalists under that administration was even higher than under Martial Law. There was talk of different safehouses for weekends. And most distressingly, the various job offers in the private sector that would have replaced his government income and alleviated the economic burden on my mother now evaporated into thin air. Dad was now persona non grata and too much of a political tinderbox to be hired. “Other dads play golf when they retire, not call on presidents to resign,” I would say in jest. “Hasn’t our family given this country enough?”

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That was another lesson my father taught me. Nothing is ever enough for the country and nation that you love.

My father taught me that you didn’t have to be the smartest in the room to succeed. “I may not have graduated high school valedictorian or salutatorian, but I was elected boy mayor of Bacolod,” he would proudly say. “Learn how to network” was also a constant mantra. To this end, my father bought me a golf set and lessons with a golf pro which I, in the middle of my 14-year-old rebellious Marxist infatuation, defiantly rejected claiming I would never be a sellout with an MBA like my parents. Dear reader, you can guess with all the irony what master’s degree I currently hold.

While our parents did expect us to do the best we could academically and they were justifiably proud of us when we brought our report cards in, my brothers and I were not burdened with the idea of perfection. “I failed my first college Math class,” Dad would say with a smile. Knowing I had decided to major in engineering, my parents always told us that their engineering friends at UP took seven, eight, even 10 years to finish college. Just graduating on time was enough of an accomplishment, regardless of GPA. Context was important. Realizing that your parents are human and not superheroes on a pedestal — that was a gift from my parents to us. My father was the son of middle-class accountants in provincial Bacolod and now that I am older, I understand the depths of my father’s achievements. I am also grateful that by acknowledging his mistakes and his own failures, my dad made it so perfection and accomplishment were never Damocles’ swords hanging over our heads. He set us free.

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My father taught me the value of effort, to always try to rise up to a challenge. “My professor told me that Business Administration and Accounting was a harder major than just Business Administration so I switched majors,” Dad would say. This was from a father who failed his first college math class. “Your mother was always the smarter one,” Dad would reply, with a shrug. He was lucky that he met my mother, also an accounting major, when he transferred over. I never did ask if she helped him with this problem sets. But he did distinguish himself enough at the university that Washington Sycip offered him a job before he had even graduated. My father chose to teach at the College of Business instead. It was his calling. He was a great speaker, could command a lecture hall with his presence. He was a voracious reader and brought his scholarship back to his students. It wasn’t easy for him though. He told me he threw up from nerves before every lecture when he first started teaching. But the show must go on.

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My father taught me to walk through the world with generosity and an understanding heart. Out in the world, this means he was a pragmatist. He made a point to try to empathize with everyone’s motivation and does not judge too harshly. He dialogued with everyone, from the business titans, senators, presidents, army generals, and soldiers to officials in the communist underground. Feuds had no part in his equations. His eye was on the prize—social and economic progress for this country, and for this goal factionalism has no quarter. We were all in this together and each Filipino needs to work together, overcome tribalism and enmity, for this nation see any change for the good.

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HEART OF GOLD

As for his personal life, I would say he was generous to a fault. When I was young, I would be frustrated that he would lend money to distant relatives that I knew would never pay him back. As an adult, I now understand that his loans were loans in name only, that he never had the expectation of repayment, that he knew he had the money now, and this person needed it, and that he could always make more. Only now do I see how “to give and not to count the cost” is truly a principle that dad lives by. As a teenager, I was jealous of how generous he was with his time for others—there was always an event he had to go to, work to do. He was up and about at 5 a.m., out the door, and active in so many organizations—it took up so much of his life. I understand now that he was driven to make the world a better place, and not in some nebulous hug-your-neighbor way, but in the way that required you to shake hands, attend meetings, and model civic responsibility as way of a life.

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Saving for rainy days, saving for the future—that was never his strength. Picking up the check at dinners, donating to charity—my father would have lived a life of philanthropy if he had been to the manor born. As it is, my mom the CFO tried to balance the budget as best she could to no avail. My dad could not be constrained. He always claimed he was lucky because he kept winning all these raffles—he’d come home with an electric fan one day, or a new microwave the next. The reality was he probably bought the most tickets at every charity event to support whatever cause was at hand so the odds of his winning were pretty high. Once, to save my parents money I decided not to come home for Christmas, since plane tickets were too expensive, only to find that my father then bought art from a charity event at almost the same price as that NYC to Manila ticket. I can laugh about that now. My dad believed that whatever you give to the world will be returned back a hundredfold. And it’s true, I’ve seen it. I see it now, in our family’s dark hours, how our friends and community rally to help us and lift us up through the pain and uncertainty.

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A FATHER'S UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

My father showed me that a father’s love is unconditional. In his eyes, we were already the best people we could be. We were not clay to be molded in his image or held to an impossible standard and loved only when we would meet this standard. Our mistakes were just that, since he made mistakes too. Weakness was acknowledged, since perfection was unattainable the best we could be was human. My brothers and I were loved for who we are, and I am grateful for that. Not every child has that. We are the lucky ones.

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My father taught me the satisfaction of finding your vocation. In his case, his vocation was to dedicate his life to service to the country, to the work of nation-building. He had worked tirelessly, and with much personal sacrifice, in the hopes that the Philippines will be a much better country after he is gone. Our family once had the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, green cards at the ready, but my father said no. His life was here. His calling was here. And now that I am older, I understand how right that decision was because I now understand how much his work means to him. How it was not work, but vocation. How it was his identity, how his soul was intertwined with the health and future of the Philippines and the Filipino people.

I once told my mother that if dad were born during the Philippine revolution, he would be out there in the trenches, ready to die in the battlefield. As a former bureaucrat and firebrand of his age and stature, he had to console himself with the idea of dying in the middle of a board meeting. And dying was a real possibility. Stage 4 cancer of unknown origin was a serious matter. Barring any miracles, mortality became all too real for my father. And still—there he was last September going to the annual shareholder meetings in his wheelchair and oxygen tank, spending hours upon hours in long meetings over economic strategy. He had given up all his operational duties but he was still on the board of 10 other companies. He was still writing his weekly columns, always submitting on time. His photo in the newspaper no longer matched his current visage, ravaged by chemotherapy treatments that had not been working. And still, he fought on. Because he knew that each word, each effort mattered. That the Philippines continued to need every single body in getting this complicated country to work for all the people, and not just the privileged few, living in it.

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Only a person truly fulfilled in his vocation could be as tireless as my father had been in continuing to work in the face of such illness and suffering. In July I rushed back home to Manila after news that dad’s lung collapsed after a surgical procedure had gone awry. I thought I would be nursing him, take the burden off my mother for a bit. Instead, what my father really wanted me to do was to help him write a chapter introduction on good governance for a book that he was to contribute to. Such a close brush with death, and this was still on his mind.

Back in the throes of deep winter in NYC, after my father’s bedtime prayers over Facetime with my kids, we had sometimes managed to talk a little bit. We always said I love you. I always told him to get more rest.

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FILLED WITH FIRE

One of our conversations found him expounding on the folly of the finance department’s decision to impose such high excise taxes which penalized the working poor. They should roll back excise taxes and get the budget shortfall from the money allocated to local government pork, he said, since politicians just use that for the basketball courts and other campaign boosters once election time rolls around. This will level the political playing field and alleviate the burden on the poor, he added. This was the kind of conversation he chose to have while suffering from the worst effects of chemotherapy, as an infection spread through his body. He was on oxygen and spoke slowly, taking deep breaths between every word. So much effort just to talk about government policy to a daughter living in a different country. It’s heartbreaking. And inspirational. It moved me to ask more of my own life, to examine how I lived my day-to-day, and to realize that it can’t be spent treading water. Oh, to be filled with such fire!

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How could any teacher ever compare to my father, the professor? The funny thing is, the most impactful lesson I learned from dad was one I don’t think he meant to teach. Our home was always filled with art and books.

The art was work from his fellow-professors from the College of Art at UP Diliman, the books reflected his wide range of interests—Philippine history, art, management, literature, every single book written on the First Quarter Storm, Martial Law and the EDSA revolution.

It was in his massive library that I first encountered F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Hemingway, science fiction by Isaac Asimov, the Chinese classic Dream Of The Red Chamber and yes, even the Kama Sutra. Not only did I have this library but we knew that once we were in a bookstore, we could have as many books we wanted. Toys were rationed, not books. He brought me to see my first play, Arsenic and Old Lace, and I still remember the scent of his cologne as my eyes grew wide with wonder at the magic onstage. And in this way began my lifelong love affair with the written word, my joy in painting, sculpture, and theater, appreciating the value that literature and art can bring to life. His most significant gift to me was the knowledge that art could not only be enjoyed, but also created—by anyone. When I was 10, I found an entire notebook of his poetry with accompanying illustrations. These were the final versions, copied down in careful, neat handwriting with delicate drawings of lilies and figures throughout. He must have compiled the notebook back in college, the brown cardboard cover a little torn, the lined paper yellow with age. I knew he was a business professor, but that was the first time it really hit me that he was a writer. And that I, by the theory of genes and parental transposition, could be a writer too. And this writing, this art, has been my greatest comfort, my greatest challenge, my greatest pain, but also my greatest joy. And for this, I thank him always. I thank him for the words he has brought into the world. As I always thank him for his lessons, his work, his devotion, and his love.

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The writer Maileen Salazar Bishop with her father Melito Salazar, Jr.

Melito Salazar, Jr. passed away on Saturday, February 16, 2019. He was 69 years old.

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