By Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star)
I was a fledgling writer when I met Johnny Flavier. I wrote a series for the Bulletin’s human interest page on the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) of which Johnny was president. The series drew the attention of the eminent author Pearl S. Buck who asked that I be commissioned to write more stories about the organization. I was so inspired when I wrote that piece — the way writers are inspired by subjects they admire and respect. That was more than 50 years ago.
A few years ago, I dropped in at the home of the Flaviers in Tierra Pura, Quezon City. To my surprise Johnny asked his wife Susan to bring out an album of clippings that I had written about him, and the ones that Pearl S. Buck liked.
Writing about him was a breeze, for there were many things he did, and preached, among the rural folk that were so simple they were funny, and very practical. Like comparing family planning to chickens picking ipil-ipil seeds and not getting pregnant. Like popularizing a slogan that went like this: Lindol pa man ng lindol, pag uminom ng Midol, walang lalabas na sanggol.’’ Like using knives instead of slivers of bamboo which rural midwives used to cut newly born infants’ umbilical cords with. Like helping the men make toilet bowls (the grateful beneficiaries honored him by painting his name in the bowls so they will never forget him).
He liked to joke about his height – lower than 5 feet tall.
His accounts of his happy times with the barrio folk are contained in the eight books he has written. These are Doctors to the Barrios, Doctor To the Barrios, Experiences with the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (1970), My Friends in the Barrios (1974), Back to the Barrios: Balikbaryo (1978), Parables of the Barrio: Vol. I (1988), Parables of the Barrios: Vol. II, Nos. 51-100 (1989), Parables of the Barrio: Vol. III, Nos. 101-150 (1991), Let’s DOH It!: How We Did It (1998), and From Barrio to Senado: an Autobiography (2009).
Johnny wrote finis to his life October 30 due to complications of pneumonia. He was 79. But his admirers will never write the end to their memory of such a good man, a wit, a joker, an innovator, a friend to all he met. Just listen to the eulogies delivered at worship services at the Church of the Risen Lord, at the wakes at the Department of Health and at the Senate. They speak of the life lived so well by Johnny, who was born in Tondo, Manila, grew up in Baguio, earned his medical degree from the University of the Philippines Manila-College of Medicine in 1960, his masters in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 1969, became president of PRRM in 1967, president of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction from 1978 to 1992, secretary of health in 1992, and twice elected senator of the Republic of the Philippines (1995 and 2001 elections).
As senator, he authored and sponsored landmark legislation pieces such as the Traditional Medicine Law, the Poverty Alleviation Law, Clean Air Act, Indigenous People’s Rights Act, Anti-money Laundering Act of 2001, Barangay Micro-Business Enterprise, National Service Training Program for Tertiary Students of 2002, Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, Plant Variety Protection Act, Philippine Nursing Act of 2002 and the Tobacco Regulation Act.
Flavier implemented the country’s first human immuno-deficiency virus prevention program. He was Enemy No. 1 of the Catholic Church, which branded him “agent of Satan” for his promotion of artificial family planning methods and distribution of condoms. When he first ran for the Senate, the church criticized him severely, with one bishop publicly wishing that a stone mill be tied around his neck. But, Senator Flavier said, despite that, he was still called “Mr. Senator.”
Information material from the Department of Health says, “Perhaps the most popular Secretary of Health was Dr. JM Flavier. Buoyant and hilarious, he was right for the mass immunization and micronutrient implementation campaign that marked his administration. With the battle cry ‘Let’s DOH it’ he popularized the programs and projects of the Department and injected excitement in the early years of his administration. He encouraged participation of non-governmental organizations in the DOH projects and was able to tap industrial sectors. During his term, Barangay Health Workers were organized and among the many projects initiated were: Healthy Places Initiative, Stop DEATH Program, National Voluntary Blood Service Program, Oplan Sagip Mata, Yosi Kadiri, Doctors to the Barrios Project, Hataw Fitness Program, Pusong Pinoy, and Hospitals as Center for Wellness Program.
* * *
Johnny was a doting grandfather, his son James told me. “I remember Dad as putting very great importance to his grandchildren Carlo, Pau, Jesse, Jeid, Kia, Pio, Migo, Susan Jasmine and Juan Jericho, and great grandchild Jesse James. Even during his busy days as health secretary and later as senator, he always found time to be with them. On many occasions he would take them to the malls. Oftentimes he would be the driver. He never had a bodyguard so during those outings he was effectively both yaya and driver of his grandkids.”
Interestingly, all the Flavier children’s names start with the letter J. The oldest son, Jonathan, became a medical doctor. Articulate and charming like his dad, he was popular as a health program host in the TV show “Good morning Doc,” but had to give that up when he joined USAID. He is now executive director of the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines. He is married to Patit.
Juanito is the businessman in the family. He and wife Marge own Little John Restaurant in Camp John Hay and manage the family’s Beyond the Sunset Memorial Park (a columbary and crematorium) in Baguio City.
James, married to Cibie, is property manager of the family corporation called Tambulilit, Inc.
The youngest, only daughter Mary Jocelyn or Joy, as she is popularly called, was her father’s secretary at the Department of Health. It was while working for her dad that she met her future husband, Roby Alampay, an executive at TV 5. Joy is regional communications manager of Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance based in Bangkok, Thailand.
My sincerest condolences to the Flavier children — and to Johnny’s widow — Susan Aguila Flavier, the inspiration behind Johnny’s successes.