FROM THE STANDS By Domini M. Torrevillas
The Philippine Star 10/18/2005
You can’t avoid him, the way you can’t avoid seeing Kris Aquino and Aga Muhlach on giant billboards everywhere and on the boob tube all the time. I won’t be surprised if some quarters perceive Senator Richard Gordon’s ubiquity as leading towards the presidency of the Philippine Republic.
Dick has been in the news for as long as we can remember. He was the youngest member, at age 25, of the 1971 Constitutional Convention; as mayor of Olongapo City during the martial law years, he did the next to impossible – converting "sin city" Olongapo to spanking clean model city free of garbage and reduced criminal elements. But he always pointed to his constituents as having been responsible for the city’s transformation.
When the largest American military facility outside the continental United States closed shop, Gordon led the transformation of Subic Naval Base, inspiring 8,000 volunteers to preserve the US$8-billion facility and making it the Philippines’ premier free port and special economic zone.
As chair of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, he drew investors and raves and was good copy when he was eased out by former President Joseph Estrada, and got into verbal tussles with his successor.
As tourism secretary, he turned around a moribund industry shaken by threats of terrorism after 9-11, and the fear of SARS disease. He gained the respect of his peers internationally, who elected him World Tourism Organization Commissioner for East Asia and the Pacific in 2002 and chair of the Pacific Asia Travel Association in 2003, and became the chief advocate of Third World countries affected by unfair travel advisories by Western governments.
It’s conceded that his popularity soared as secretary of tourism, as he scoured the farthest reaches of the land and promoted the country through attractive slogans like "Wow Philippines." I think more Filipinos learned to like to travel in their own country during Dick’s time. It seemed he liked being Filipino and living in this country. He even made Filipinos appreciate the greatness of Lapu-Lapu. It was no wonder he ranked fifth in the last senatorial race.
Now, as chair and executive officer of the Philippine National Red Cross, Senator Gordon, is able to reach more people – at a time when help is most needed. He has been to sites of disasters, handing out food and clothing to victims, carrying babies, hugging old women, making the men feel useful even in the aftermath of calamities.
But Dick’s quick response to calls for help is no political gimmick. He has been a Red Cross volunteer for a long time, since his mother, recipient of the highest PNRC award, the Gold Humanitarian Cross and Pearl S. Buck award, founded the Red Cross chapter in Olongapo City. Today, Dick’s mother remains chairperson of the said chapter.
In whatever government position Dick held, he led rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations around the Philippines. There were the 1987 sinking of the M/V Asuncion off Palawan Island after colliding with another sea vessel. One of the survivors of the collision, whose mother perished in the incident, was "adopted" by Dick. Today, the orphan is a practicing physical therapist.
He was quick to respond to the 1990 killer earthquake that hit Luzon. Where he led a joint Philippine and American civilian and military rescue effort in the collapsed Central College of the Philippines in Cabanatuan City.
In 1997, he responded to the call for Asian Regional Disaster Training and Logistics Center to help plan, prepare for, and mitigate calamities and disasters in the region. Through his prodding the first ASEAN Disaster Management Workshop Seminar was held in Manila in 1999. After the recent Asian Tsunami, efforts are now underway for the establishment of such a regional center in the Subic Freeport.
In 2004, the international regard for Gordon’s leadership track record was such that, when he appealed for help on behalf of 50,000 families affected by a series of four typhoons in November and December, the member societies of the International Red Cross from all over the world responded with more than $3 million in donations – a record in Philippine humanitarian circles.
An accomplished fund-raiser for the Red Cross, in 2000, Gordon initiated the PNRC Millennium Fund, to which corporate donors pledged contributions of a million pesos to the Red Cross for five years to sustain training of volunteers and upgrade rescue and relief equipment. Through this Fund, PNRC acquired a rescue truck equipped with air bags that can lift tons of rubble and pneumatic pliers to pry open crumpled structures and free up trapped victims. The equipment strengthens the capability of the PNRC to fund and rescue people trapped under debris or collapsed buildings or pinned down in accidents.
In the middle of a presentation before prospective investors at Subic Freeport, he learned from an aide of a call for help over the radio. He immediately led a team with a fully equipped rescue truck that he recently purchased for the Freeport to dig out survivors and bodies from the rubble of the collapsed Guzman Tech Building in Manila in 1994.
He has sent volunteers to disasters and accidents such as engineers and electricians to Negros in the Visayas that was rendered without electric power for weeks by super-typhoon Didang in 1989. He provided body bags for the thousands who had died in Ormoc in 1991, sent fully-equipped professional divers to recover drowned religious devotees from the sinking of vessels in a fluvial parade in Bulacan, sent water tankers to provide safe drinking water to communities affected by the eruption of Mt. Mayon, and evacuated city residents and 9,000 indigenous people from the flanks of Mt. Pinatubo days before the volcano’s eruption.
In March 2000, after inaugurating the newly formed local Red Cross chapter of Basilan Island in Mindanao, he worked for the release without ransom of 18 school children and teachers held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf. One of the rescued kids, Dana Mijal, who celebrated her birthday in captivity, is now in high school as Dick’s scholar at the Ateneo de Zamboanga.
Dick has received many awards, including the TOYM Award for public administration in 1962. The most colorful of them is Hong Kong Standard’s calling him the "Flash Gordon of the Philippines."