Lessons I learned from Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc within and outside the newsroom

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, 1941-2015

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, 1941-2015

(A shorter version of this piece came out in today’s Philippine Daily Inquirer. Here’s a full unedited version of my tribute to the late Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc– freedom fighter, media icon, great writer, warm person and PDI’s editor in chief)

IF Mother Lily or Boss Vic were to turn Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc’s life into a movie, I’m pretty sure neither of them would bother to cast an actor to play me.

To my regret, my interactions with Philippine Daily Inquirer’s late editor in chief were few and far between. It wasn’t because she was unapproachable, or had no time to spare staffers from other sections of the paper.

Since I was always in awe of her and how her beautiful and sometimes naughty mind worked, I didn’t approach her unless it was very necessary. Knowing how enormous her responsibilities were, I didn’t want to bother her with my seemingly puny concerns.

But if someone would be foolish enough to turn my life into a movie, it would be incomplete if he or she didn’t cast a seasoned actress to play Ma’am Letty’s part.

Although our dealings could probably barely exceed the number of one’s fingers and toes, most of them happened during pivotal times in my life as a professional. I will always consider them life lessons, which I would try my best to live by for the rest of my life.

I’ve known Ma’am Letty or LJM perhaps longer than any of my colleagues at Inquirer Lifestyle. I was 20 and fresh out of college when I landed a thrice-a-week job as a proofreader for Mr. & Ms. glossy and special edition magazines in late 1985.

The latter was edited by Doris Nuyda, while the former, as everyone knows, was edited by LJM to chronicle the foibles and excesses of Ferdinand Marcos and his dictatorship during its dying days.

I was there the night LJM, then editor in chief of Mr. & Ms. Special Edition, and Eggie Apostol celebrate when it was finally confirmed that Marcos had fled.

I was there the night LJM, then editor in chief of Mr. & Ms. Special Edition, and magazine owner and publisher Eggie Apostol celebrate when it was finally confirmed that Marcos had fled the country.

As a newbie who was still unsure of what to do with my life, I felt so inadequate as I read through the copies of young writers Fe Zamora, Candy Quimpo, Franky Joaquin, JP Fenix and Joey Nolasco.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how they were able to come up with such catchy leads and engaging stories, knowing that they were always working against time and under the shadows of a ruthless dictator and his minions.

It was only a bit later when I realized how instrumental LJM was in guiding and inspiring them to be their best not only for themselves but also for the country.

And despite the real and imagined pressure on everybody those heady days brought, I never once heard LJM shout or lose her cool. She didn’t have to carry a big stick, so to speak, while speaking with a soft albeit almost hoarse voice to get things done.

I got my first real encounter on what power looks like when LJM finally emerged from her office during my second day at Mr. & Ms. To my surprise, she was the exact opposite of every imaginable cliché I had of what an influential editor in chief should be.

For one, of course, she was a woman. And a very stylish one at that! She also spoke sparingly and walked gingerly as if she was going to fall down any minute.

And when she did speak, you could immediately sense the kindness in her eyes and lilt in her voice, which was punctuated occasionally by her trademark throaty laugh. Best of all, she made me feel welcome, which was more than I could ask for.

LJM nearly breaks protocol to have a word with US President Barrack Obama during last November's APEC leaders' welcome dinner.

LJM nearly breaks protocol to have a word with US President Barrack Obama during last November’s APEC leaders’ welcome dinner.

Since I’ve heard so much about her, I couldn’t believe my eyes that she was right there in front of me. Even then, she was already a rock star! I had to pinch myself by asking the magazine’s art director the obvious when she finally left the production area: “Was that Letty Magsanoc?”

My second memorable encounter with LJM was on a Philippine Airlines flight to the United States in 1993.

She was headed for the mainland to receive an award from the University of Missouri, her alma mater where she took up a master’s degree in journalism, while I was off to Honolulu with a group of journalists to cover the Department of Tourism’s Bring Home a Friend campaign, which would later take us to other key US cities.

Those were exciting times for me not only because it was my first time to visit America. Since I was an aspiring lifestyle journalist on an extended break from my job as a supplements writer, I knew I had to do well during the entire coverage.

When I returned to Manila three weeks later, LJM was already back to her old routine as PDI’s editor in chief.

Her then secretary, Nancy Carvajal, told me that one of the first questions she asked the minute she arrived was my whereabouts. I could only laugh when I learned about it.

Being relatively new as a journalist, I guess I had no reputation and track record to consider, and could very well have used the opportunity to stay indefinitely in the US at PDI’s expense. Of course, I did no such thing.

LJM didn't like her pictures taken, but for some reason, says Inquirer Lifestyle editor Thelma San Juan, she gamely posed during the APEC event. The stylish LJM wears a Pepito Albert top.

LJM didn’t like her pictures taken, but for some reason, says Inquirer Lifestyle editor Thelma San Juan, she gamely posed during the APEC event. The stylish LJM wears a Pepito Albert top.

Since she was PDI’s big boss, she had every right to think that way. But I’d like to believe that LJM was simply genuinely concerned about me since we were on the same flight less than a month ago.

What did I learn from the entire episode? The trust a journalist carefully cultivates between him and his readers and sources should extend to his editors and the newspaper he represents.

As the newspaper’s eyes and ears on the ground, reporters are privileged to carry with them the paper’s name. But at the same time, they’re duty-bound to conduct themselves properly during coverages because anything they do would reflect not only on them, but ultimately on the paper they write for.

Finally, during one of those routine lunches at the old PDI office on UN Avenue, my colleagues and I were talking about various possible career options along the building’s narrow corridor, which also doubled as a mess hall.

Unknown to us, LJM was on her way to the ladies’ room when she caught snippets of our conversation. She had to stop and butt in after she heard me say these lines: “…eh, wala namang madali sa mundo. Lahat pinaghihirapan.”

“That’s very true, Alex,” she said, to our group’s surprise. “Nothing worth doing is easy. We should always bear that in mind in whatever we choose to do.”

LJM, with Hans Sy, Tessie Sy-Coson and Ricky Reyes, during one of her last public appearances shortly before she became ill. She graces opening of the new Childhaus building for indigent kids suffering from cancer. It was one several civic projects she supported and felt strongly about.

LJM, with Hans Sy and Ricky Reyes, during one of her last public appearances shortly before becoming ill. She graces opening of the new Childhaus building for indigent kids suffering from cancer. It was one of several civic projects she supported and felt strongly about.

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