EVERY Thursday afternoon two scores ago, a pack of students from the University of the Philippines in Diliman would jump on a bus and roar off to the cheap restaurants of Cubao or Quiapo. On Fridays, when they also finished classes early, the students would catch the second-run shows in the movie houses of Cubao, where a double feature cost only 60 centavos, or half the peso and twenty for a new movie. Sometimes they would have money left for a burger.
It was the late sixties, and while the rest of the world was into Woodstock and Marxist revolutions, Filipino students were slow to challenge authority. For Manuel Bamba Villar Jr. and his Thursday Club buddies, life was about finishing college, having fun, and catching a good movie now and then.
Much has changed since then. The young man clad in jeans and t-shirt then now wears tailored suits and owns more than a billion pesos in assets. The boy who was called “Bamba” by friends – after his middle name and after a popular song of the sixties, Villar would later don the titles of congressman, Speaker, senator, and then Senate president. The boy whose only aim then was to finish college now seeks the Presidency of the Republic.
Still and all, a few pegs link the present to the past: Villar wears today like a badge on his shoulder what he claims is a past mired in poverty, even as his detractors say he was not really dirt-poor as he purports to be.
Also, Villar and his Senate colleagues Joker Arroyo, Francis Pangilinan, and former Senators Noli de Castro and Ralph Recto would later form the Wednesday Club, perhaps a modern-day version of Villar’s old groupie in college. Every Wednesday, the group would have lunch together at the Senate lounge or in some hotel restaurant and talk about anything and everything from politics to gossip.
Villar the student
Villar entered UP in 1966 to take up business administration (BA), majoring in Accounting. He came from Mapua High School, where he was remembered as a smart and good-looking kid who was even nominated Campus King, recalls Manny Castro, a member of the Cardinals and Robins for Villar (CRV), a volunteer group of Villar’s high school classmates.
In the second semester of his third year in UP, Villar joined the Pan Xenia fraternity. According to the Philippinesian, then UP’s official yearbook, Villar was also a member of the UP Junior Executives Circle (UPJEC), the UP Junior Philippine Institute of Accountants (UP JPIA), and the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA).
Danilo Pineda and Rolando Panlilio, his contemporaries at Pan Xenia, remember Villar as a hardworking student. His dedication and focus were qualities that caught the fraternity’s attention. Students were accepted into Pan Xenia by invitation only.
Pineda says Villar was not an outstanding student but excelled in accounting – the subject that his classmates consider to be their toughest. Girls admired Villar for his accounting prowess, adds Panlilio.
Because of his family’s business, Pineda and Panlilio say, Villar had less time to hang out with his brods after class.
“’Pag uwian, ’di mo na sya makikita, bigla na siya mawawala. Nu’n pala, sabi niya sa ‘kin, ‘Brod, ganito kasi ’yan, ’di kasi ako pwede kasi hahalinhan ko pa si Nanay,’” says Panlilio.
But former classmate Antonio Arcilla says Villar did hang out on a more regular basis with a different club, one that was not in the UP yearbook.
After his accounting classes ended at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Villar and his classmates would take the bus to Cubao or to Quiapo. They would eat at affordable food joints like Hong Ning, Ma Mon Luk and Chopsticks House in Cubao.
Sometimes, they would go to more expensive places like Barrio Fiesta along EDSA, at the time known as Highway 54. It became a weekly habit that gave birth to the Thursday Club..
To this day, the Thursday Club meets regularly every last Thursday of the month. Villar used to attend but Arcilla, who calls the meetings, says he had stopped inviting him two years ago
“Naawa ako kaya hindi ko na inimbita,” says Arcilla. Villar’s college classmates noticed that Villar sometimes falls asleep in the middle of Thursday Club meetings. When he does, Arcilla normally gives the signal to pack up.
Was the Thursday Club a precursor of Villar’s Wednesday Club in the Senate? Arcilla says he never gathered the courage to pop the question to the senator.
Arcilla recalls hanging out with Villar at the Benton Hall, the old Business Administration and Economics building, which now houses the UP Diliman Gender Office, Center for International Studies, and the Office of Anti-Sexual Harassment.
“Siyempre mga usapang binata, mga kalokohan,” says Arcilla. “You’re just relieving the stress ng klase.”
Many BA students, Villar included, stayed at the library but not always to study. “Kasi ’yun lang ang may aircon sa buong building,” Arcilla says. “Anyone who goes into the library hindi makakapag-aral kasi ang ingay-ingay.”
When it came to grades, Arcilla says Villar was an “average” student. In Villar’s batch of accounting majors, only one graduated with honors.
“Alam mo kami, we never talk about grades. Napag-usapan na namin ’yan. Kasi if you get a one, ’yun ang pinakamataas, hindi mo ipagyayabang. If you get a five, lalong hindi mo sasabihin,” says Arcilla.
Aside from their usual food trips and the 60-centavo double-movie treats on Fridays, Arcilla recalls playing arcade games with Villar at the old Quezon Center in Cubao. Arcilla was the type who lost his cool over bad scores in pinball but Villar was the exact opposite.
“Siya lang ‘ata ang hindi pa nagagalit sa class namin,” says Arcilla. “’Pag napipikon na siya, tatalikod lang yan. Wala na, tatahimik na.”
Arcilla best remembers Villar for being concerned about others. Arcilla once ran for second vice president in the Junior Executives Circle or UPJEC, where he and Villar were members. The vice president was also the manager of the BA lounge, who received a regular honorarium. Some time before the nomination, Arcilla told Villar he needed the money.
Villar was nominated for the position. Arcilla recalls that they just looked at each other and then Villar withdrew from the nomination.
Panlilio’s most memorable memory of Villar comes from the future senator’s initiation rites in the fraternity that included seniors hitting the neophytes with a paddle. In his batch, only Villar pushed through with his application. While he was hitting Villar, Panlilio said he was coaxing the latter to just quit, to test how much he wanted to join the fraternity.
“I was telling him, ‘mag-quit ka na!‘ Then he would answer me, ‘No, master,’” says Panlilio. Villar passed the rites, the only one in his batch of 17 applicants who was made a member.
“Mahirap ‘yung ikaw lang ang mag-isa sa batch kasi lahat ng atensyon ng mga brod sa ’yo naka-focus,” said Panlilio. “Lahat ng discouraging acts, whatever, tatanggapin mo.”
Villar was the first Pan Xenia brod to finish the application process by his lonesome.
An activist, briefly?
Former UP president Francisco Nemenzo says Villar’s years in college were the peak of student activism. Smart students who wanted a career in student politics preferred to join leftist organizations for the necessary political machinery come election time.
Villar was in UP to witness the First Quarter Storm, a series of student-led protests in 1970. In one interview, Villar claimed that he joined the leftist student organization Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) for a month, only to try it out.
Being an activist, according to Nemenzo, was the “fashionable” thing to do at the time but only a small number of students in truth were militants.
“To tell you the truth I’ve been involved in leftist activity since 1960. The reputation is undeserved. During the peak of student activism there was only a small group. Others would just wait and see,” says Nemenzo.
Still, the activists were “sizable enough” to project an image of a militant university to the public, Nemenzo says, adding that most other students were at the time simply focused on their careers. Villar, he says, apparently stayed on the second track.
Nemenzo notes that most activists were from the middle class, while students from lower-income groups strove to conquer the promise of more stable incomes after college, so it was less likely they would risk getting kicked out for activism.
Arcilla says he had heard about Villar joining some of the rallies, adding though that the nature of the College of Business Administration students contravenes the faith of the activists. “You cannot expect the ordinary BA student to be there. Kasi nilalabanan nila (activists) ang capitalism. And what is BA (Business Administration)?” asks Arcilla.
It was in college, however, where Villar first cast his hat into the electoral arena, albeit with sad results. He ran for vice president in the UPJPIA under Arcilla’s ticket. They lost.
Villar would later join male friends in organizing the UP Society for the Emancipation of Men (UP SEMen), supposedly “to have a strong voice in a predominantly female studentry while promoting camaraderie among business students.” The group has changed its name to the UP Society of Emancipated Men and is now accredited as a UP student organization.
(Because SEMen was not yet accredited during Villar’s time, the UP yearbook does not show him being an officer in any student organization.)
Forty years after college, Pineda, Panlilio and Arcilla all say that they had never thought Villar would become a politician. What they did foresee only was that he would meet with success in business.
“Hindi siya ang class valedictorian but I think he learned the most. Kasi siya ’yung pinaka-successful. And I’m not just talking about learning from books,” says Arcilla.
All close buddies of Villar from college, the three swear this much about the senator: He has not changed since he took the bus with them to Cubao for cheap movies and treats. To them, Manuel B. Villar Jr to this day remains their La Bamba.— PCIJ, April 2010