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Gene
’s Ultimate Gift

(Article published in the Apr 28,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)  

In life, his brand of helping others had always been of giving, not so much of property or possession (he was a panggalatok, and proud of it), but, instead, of himself.  His time, his skill, his knowledge, even simply his concern. But still, none of us expected that, in death, he would literally push to the limit his style of giving.  Dr. Jorge Higinio (hence, the nickname “Gene”) N. San Juan willed that his body be turned over to his alma mater, the UP College of Medicine. 

We became friends when, during our third year in high school, I joined Gene in Section 3-B at the Ateneo.  We were not natives, i.e. products of the Ateneo Grade School who address one another as “pal”, who never had to worry about grammar and syntax when talking to American Jesuit teachers in their white sutanas, and who were driven to and fetched from school in nice cars.  Instead, we were pedestrian migrants from the public school system.

Gene was valedictorian of the Ordaneta Elementary School in his home province of Pangasinan and he entered the Ateneo High School as freshman, Section 1-D; I went to the Ateneo only on my second year, in Section 2-D, after finishing at Lakan Dula Elementary School on Solis St., in Gagalangin, Tondo,and taking my first year at the Ampil Annex of Torres High School on Juan Luna St.  English was not our language of choice, but we struggled to speak it all the time, because of the then prevailing “English Rule” on campus.  We took the school bus in the mornings, and when we missed the last trip in the afternoon, we walked all the way to Gate 3 on Katipunan to take the JD bus to Quiapo or, further on, to the corner of Aurora Avenue to get on the Marikina Bus or Marikina Valley to Divisoria, unless we were able to hitch a ride with Ateneo natives Abe Pascual or Roy Gonzales.
 










In those long trips, Gene taught me about the ways of  Ateneo boys and the wiles of their sisters and cousins in Assumption and Maryknoll.  There we talked of parents and teachers, grades and girls, spun our tales and wove our dreams, nursed our sorrows and hid our fears, griped about allowance and vowed to be much better than our elders.  At times we were certain we had the solution to the problems of the universe; at others, at a loss as to how to tackle the evening’s homework.  But always, we were young and we knew, as only the young could, that we would get there, whatever and wherever that “there” was  to go to, if only we worked and, of course, played hard enough.

And very hard did Gene work and play, --testing the limits of his resolve and endurance, giving everything he’s got, and then some more. In the seven years we were together at the Ateneo, three years of high school and four years in the college of liberal arts, I saw him, in no particular order, play basketball to exhaustion during those “class nights”, serve Mass in the mornings at the Faculty House (now known as the Jesuit Residence) with the rest of the Sanctuary Society, teach catechism to public school children as a member of  ACIL, go to week-end parties and soirees (he was the favorite of the blushing girls), get medals and win honors (he was voted salutatorian of HS ’60 and was cum laude when he got his AB in ‘64), play the guitar for a couple of years, or two, in a band called “Live Wires” with, if I am not mistaken, Wopsy Zamora, Arturo Quito, Arlu Gomez, and Pocholo Rous, bowl on Sundays at the Catholic Women’s League lanes on  Florida St. and play billards at the “Pink House” on Katipunan.

While most of us were content with our ROTC, compulsory during the first two years of college, he volunteered to be a cadre in the Philippine Air Force’s officer’s training course at the then Nicols Air Base, together with Boy Tripon, Toting Bunye, and Eli Navarette. Just to test if he had what it takes, I suspect, since he did not become an officer of the college ROTC corps nor applied for a commission in the service.   But it was there where his friends needed his company so it was there where he wanted to be.

After graduation, we went our separate ways. Gene proceeded to the UP College of Medicine.  He was as congenial there at the UP Med as he was at the Ateneo.  There, too, he was leader of his class, the class president, if I am not mistaken, on his second and third year of medicine proper.  He graduated doctor of medicine in 1969, was at the Philippine General Hospital as  resident physician trainee in Surgery in the 70s and thereafter, for a year, was a member of the Department of Anatomy.  He was to his classmates at UP Med School and colleagues in his profession, as well as to the many patients he had healed, exactly as we knew him at the Ateneo, effortlessly magnanimous.  He was always generous with his knowledge and skill, very free with his time and boundless with his caring. 

In hindsight, Gene’s donation of his mortal remains to the UP College of Medicine was but the logical closure of his style of living and giving.  Five years after the massive heart attack and stroke that wrecked his body and bound it to the wheel chair, he showed up at the UP College of Medicine and deposited a will and testament that had nothing on it but the bequest of his body.

His classmate, Dr. Ramon Arcadio, the current dean, called it “unconventional and unprecedented”.  For the first time, an alumnus of the college donated his body for use of its students. So moved was the school that Gene was enrolled in the highest category of membership in the Dean’s International Circle, the Legacy Club.  His name they would write in brass and post at the foyer of the main college building at Pedro Gil. A reminder to those who would pass the school’s portals of one who knew how to live and give.
 
On April 22, after the school had removed and preserved his internal organs for generations of students to learn their art, Gene was returned to his family for a proper burial.  In a mass held at the Histology Laboratory, Department of Anatomy of the UP College of Medicine, where his UP classmates also remembered the two others who had passed on, namely Drs. Johnny Escandor who was salvaged during the martial law years, and Ben Guerra, a neuronsurgeon based in Texas who died of a heart attack while playing polo with his son, the school made its final tribute.

Dr. Noni Agcaoili, Froilan Gonzalez, and Sito Santillan, his friends from the Ateneo, were there too, and, in the last strains of the final hymn after the blessing, we could swear we felt the flutter or two from the flight of angels singing their prince to his rest.
    

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