About the writer: Ricky Rionda ‘83 is a free lance writer based in Washington D.C. He was a corresponding reporter for the Philippine Daily Mirror and has written for Fil-Am publications in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
On a cool Saturday evening in Washington, the ambassador sat at a dinner table in a noisy Persian restaurant in Tysons Corner fidgeting with his camera, a holiday gift from one of his sons. He had taken the bus from New York City to see the cherry blossoms already in full bloom at the tidal basin, perhaps for the last time before he returns home to Manila. He was with his wife, the amiable Mrs. Linda Gaa who I fondly call TL or Tita Linda, and son, Wendell, who now works for the Philippine Consulate in New York. The ambassador was his usual self, quiet and unassuming, sipping hot water which he poured from a teapot as he waited for his order of jujeh, a dish of grilled Cornish chicken served with a heaping of basmati rice, a favorite from his days in the Middle East when he was ambassador to Libya.
These days, barely three weeks into semi-retirement, he has taken on a new hobby - photography. He proudly shows me pictures of the cherry blossoms he took earlier in the day, and they are quite nice. You can sense that, like everything else he does in life, he will be a good photographer too. But he acknowledges that he has a lot to learn and frowns at the notion of reading the thick owner’s manual that came with his Canon camera. Ambassador Willy Gaa relinquished his assignment as Philippine ambassador to the United States in late February and his replacement that has been named months before will finally make his appearance in Washington DC to present his credentials. His term was supposed to end in June of last year but he was asked to stay on while the new administration deliberated on his replacement. As is his nature, the ambassador soldiered on.
It is no secret that the ambassadorship to the United States is a coveted diplomatic post, and the office has been occupied by political appointees a majority of the time. Ambassador Gaa is only the second career diplomat to hold the post. Prestigious as this assignment may be, it is no easy task to serve a community that is over four million strong, the second biggest Asian minority group in the United States. But the ambassador fit the role like a glove, having served in several high profile countries as ambassador to Libya, Australia and China. He also served as consul general in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
The ambassador’s appointment to Washington in 2006 came just in time. He oversaw the most difficult diplomatic maneuvering that led to the insertion of $198 million in monetary benefits for Filipino WWII veterans in the stimulus package that was passed by the US Congress in February 2009. It required three years of intense lobbying that only an experienced ambassador could muster, and definitely not for anyone with a light resume. What he helped achieve was historic in the sense that it restored dignity, honor and recognition for the Filipino veterans who served hand in hand with their American counterparts during the war.
The ambassador then set his sights on the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US foreign aid agency which funds development projects in the world’s poorest countries. The MCC has already awarded over $7 billion in large-scale development grants all over the world but had yet to entertain an application from the Philippines. The ambassador knew that the requirements were pretty stiff, an applicant nation must demonstrate commitment to good governance and economic freedom, and the reputation of the Philippines is certainly less than stellar in these respects. Regardless, the ambassador was undeterred and he collaborated with the team that helped win $434 million in development grants for the Philippines. The agreement was signed by President Noy-Noy Aquino in New York in September of 2010. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii would later say of him, that he was the hardest working ambassador he has ever met.
I first met the ambassador in 1990 when, as a young transplant from Virginia, I was called to a meeting of fraternity brothers of the Upsilon Sigma Phi at the home of the Gaas in Van Nuys, California. Mr. Gaa joined the Upsilon Sigma Phi in 1966 while studying law in the University of the Philippines. The news was grim, and the brods were gathered in the Gaas’ living room trying to contemplate the gravity of the situation. The ambassador who was then acting consul general in Los Angeles was being relieved because a prominent Marcos crony was able to return to the Philippines despite strict instructions from Malacanang that he not be allowed entry. The blame fell on the ambassador’s lap. We all wondered if this meant the end of his promising diplomatic career which started in 1974 when he first took his oath as a foreign service officer. I noticed the concern on Mrs. Gaa’s face as she held her two young boys, Wendell and Warren. But I remember vividly the relative calmness in the ambassador’s demeanor. He said that if his career in foreign service is over, he might as well go back to the practice of law. And despite having less than three months to review, he promptly passed the California bar that same year. Such was the quiet confidence and brilliance of the man. But things would eventually cool down back home and the ambassador was able to rejoin the service. After all, any Filipino national wishing to return to the Philippines has every right to do so. He was on the right side of the issue.
The ambassador went on to have an illustrious diplomatic career serving as Philippine ambassador to Australia from 2002-2003, China from 2003-2006 and eventually, the United States. He was awarded the Gawad Sentenaryo (Centennial Award) in 1999 and the Distinguished Service Award by the DFA in 2000. In 2007, the Upsilon Sigma Phi gave him its highest recognition, the UNO Award, which put him in the company of Benigno Aquino Jr., Salvador “Doy” Laurel, Gerry Roxas, Armando Malay and a select few Upsilon alumnae who have given honor to the fraternity and distinguished service to the country.
The waiter placed the order of jujeh on the table, and the ambassador let out a smile. We were both starving and have gone tired of the Persian flat bread and butter we have been feasting on. I couldn’t resist asking him a few questions about Gaddafi who he met many times in person while ambassador to Libya from 1992-97. He admitted that the Philippine embassy had called him a few times to ask him what they needed to do as Filipino OFW’s were trapped in the fighting between Libyan rebel forces and Gaddafi’s army. He said that the colonel will go out fighting and that to his credit, Libya’s sovereign funds, or at least most of it is invested abroad and not sitting in a cave filled with gold bullions. Even a dictator like Gaddafi could receive a few complements from him.
Yet life has not offered an easy transition for the well-liked ambassador. In September of last year, after consulting his doctor about a lingering cough, he found out that he has cancer of the lungs. The news was shocking and numbing, not just for him but for his family and close friends. How could a man who has never smoked a cigarette in his life possibly get lung cancer? But forever the optimist, the ambassador rebounded from the initial shock and chose to face the biggest challenge of his life head on. He had surgery in early January to remove one-third of the right upper lobe of his lung and has been in chemotherapy every week for the past two months. In June, he will begin a round of radiation therapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York which can be debilitating. The ambassador volunteered that the chemotherapy has taken a toll on him physically, but he is quick to add that his youthful looks have not diminished, and he has kept much of his hair. His appetite is still great, pointing to the pile of chicken bones and what’s left of the jujeh. As I broke out in laughter, he said his only complaint was that he has not been out on the golf course for months and his game may have already deserted him. When I asked him if he is feeling depressed, he replied with an emphatic “no.” He said he had a good life, and he has achieved every goal he has tasked for himself. And “if the good Lord wills it, then His will be done.” He said he knows that there is finiteness to our existence in this earth and if he stands to gain five more years out of the sacrifices he is making now to prolong his life, he will make it the best five years of his life.
Before his illness, there was talk of a possible stint in the United Nations in New York, or maybe another go-around in China. Though retirement beckoned, he knew that when called upon, he would have to continue serving his country. The new administration certainly valued his contributions and despite his willingness to return home, he was given an extension that lasted eight months. This is rare for an ambassador to the United States especially since there was a newly elected president in the Philippines and the post is almost always the first to be filled. There has always been talk of running for public office in his native Romblon where he is considered one of its most accomplished sons. He thought about teaching, writing and traveling. He thought about a life of retirement and swinging golf clubs. All of these will have to wait for now.
On Monday, he will take the bus back to New York where he will stay for the duration of his treatment. He has agreed to do some legal work for the consulate while he is in New York. He laughed when he said that he has shipped all but three of his business suits to Manila and that he sometimes wears casual clothes to work. This was unheard of for the dapper ambassador who always wore his suit with a flag pin or his barong in style.
It was almost ten o’clock in the evening when we parted company. I kissed Tita Linda goodbye and shook the ambassador’s hand tightly with our fraternal handshake. As we headed to the parking lot, I noticed that the ambassador was now using a cane. I felt a little sadness as I watched him walk gingerly towards the car that the embassy has kindly provided for him. But I knew not to feel that way; I only needed to know that I have been privileged to be with his company many times throughout his stay in Washington. I was richer for it. I will see him again, I know I will, and he will be stronger than ever.
“Brother, when I meet you in the sun, I shall tell you much.”
Erratum: The ambassador’s surgery occured in October 2010 and not early January 2011.