Close to 100, this Filipino still works


By Jude O. Marfil-Schwalbach
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:27:00 06/01/2008

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — ON THE PHONE, the security guard at the office of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is adamant: “Sir, you have to come down here to sign in your guest.”

He hangs up and turns to the guest, saying: “Is Mr. Bacani sick? How come his voice sounded kinda scratchy?”

“He’s not ill,” the visitor replies. “He’s just old — 97, actually.”

“What?” says the guard, gaping. “Call him back. Tell him it’s okay.” Then he pulls out his walkie-talkie. “Tell him I’ll find somebody to take you up there.”

Alberto S. Bacani — “Bert” to his family and friends — works on the ninth floor of the EPA building. At 97, he is probably the oldest person working in any federal agency. (As a matter of policy, the US Office of Personnel Management refuses to divulge information about the age of any federal worker.)

Until he was 95, Bacani was working full time — eight hours a day, five days a week.

But now he works only two days a week. No, it’s not his age. It’s a result of a cut in the EPA budget and downsizing.

“Bert was furious with me for weeks when I told him that I had to cut his hours,” says Bacani’s boss, Diann Sims, who runs EPA’s Science Information and Analysis Branch.

Bacani is in charge of all EPA information related to pesticides. He also maintains its library. He’s the go-to guy for agency scientists who need the latest pesticide research.

“We’re a data-driven agency, so Bert’s work is important to us,” Sims says.

Sims has been with the EPA since 1986, but Bacani has seniority over the boss.

He started out as a statistical assistant in 1980. The National Older Workers Career Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that helps US citizens over the age of 55 find work, landed him the job. He was then 69.

“The fact that we keep renewing his contract every October means we value his contribution to our agency,” says Sims. “I’m a strict boss and Bert is a good employee.”

It’s unusual, Sims acknowledges. “In our culture the ability of older workers is not highly valued.”

So why does the man still work? To prove himself?

Bacani put all five of his children through college. He is a published author of textbooks. And he’s been married to the same woman for 70 years.

To show that he’s tough?

Bacani survived a Japanese prisoner camp in World War II. He dodged death threats after exposing corruption by his coworkers. He weathered the transition when he migrated to the United States from the Philippines. And he overcame grief over the death of two of his children.

To earn money?

Bacani doesn’t need the $12.57 he earns per hour at the EPA. He and his wife both receive supplemental security income, enough for food and amenities like cable TV and high-speed Internet. He owns his two-bedroom apartment.

Sims believes it is Bacani’s “life ethic” that keeps him at work. She recalls how he responded when she broke the news that his hours were being cut back.

“He told me he is the breadwinner of the family,” Sims says. “His family is pretty well-off. But he feels that as head of the family, it is still his responsibility to provide.”

Bacani says reaching retirement age shouldn’t drive one to stop working. “Retirement means to ’re-tire,’ or put on a new tire, and get back to work with that new tire,” he says.

Flag magnets, potted plant

“Welcome to my office,” Bacani says in a soft, husky voice as he settles on his swivel chair. “Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”

In his 64-square-feet cubicle are steel filing cabinets adorned by magnets of American flags and miniature covers of Time magazine. A potted philodendron, its leaves green and shiny, sits atop a cabinet.

There are also some Bible passages: “I can do things through Christ who strengthens me—Philippians 4:13.”

Like any other worker today, Bacani’s work revolves around his computer, where he writes quarterly reports and checks e-mails.

On a table are pictures of him and his wife, and more than three dozen members of his family.

Looking at the framed photographs, Bacani muses: “I want to be able to remember their names. This is why I am still working… So my mind won’t go idle.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., Bacani heads to the library to lock up for the day.

He walks slowly but with a straight back, thanks to his training as a soldier during the war. (He keeps his white hair in a crew cut. He wears eyeglasses with a brown tint to protect his almond-shaped eyes from the glare of the computer screen.)

In the hallway, no one passes without a greeting.

“Hi, Bert.”

“You’re looking great, Bert.”

“Nice to see you Bert.”

“Bert is simply an icon,” Sims says. “People here looooooove him. Anybody who wants to cause him discomfort will not be popular for a long time.”

Daughter-driver

Returning to his office, Bacani phones his youngest daughter, Milagros, whose job for the last two years has been to drive him to work in the morning and take him home at night.

Milagros admits being worried about her father still working. “But it’s Papa’s decision to continue working and we just have to respect that. He’s afraid his health will deteriorate if he stops,” she says.

Thus, Bacani’s family works around his schedule. Milagros arranged that her days off from work would be Mondays and Tuesdays, when Bacani has to report to the EPA.

“I don’t mind driving for Papa,” Milagros says. She doesn’t want to worry about her father not getting to work safely.

So Bacani just keeps on working.

In an essay titled “The Journey of Life with Destiny,” which he wrote to mark his 60th wedding anniversary, he said: “It has become a habit for me to think of or look for something to do.”

Early worker

Bacani’s journey began in the province of Isabela on Jan. 24, 1911. His father died of pneumonia just a few weeks after his birth, so he learned to work even before starting school.

He made charcoal from the wood of guava trees. His customers were local laundry women who heated their irons with his long-lasting charcoal.

In 1918, Bacani enrolled as a first-grader at the Ilagan Central School. “I was so stunted in growth that I was almost rejected,” he says.

The teacher accepted him after he showed that he could reach his left ear with his right arm fully stretched over his head.

Going to school meant walking barefoot. “Shoes and slippers were not common among most school children during my primary years,” he recalls.

In school, he learned writing and reading Filipino and English, arithmetic, Philippine geography and history, music and drawing.

He was also drilled in good manners and right conduct, and given practical skills like gardening and sewing.

On weekends, Bacani and his sister made lemonada (lemonade) and gulaman (a drink made of gelatin, water, sugar and vanilla) to cater to the cockfighting aficionados gathering next door to the family home.

He used the earnings to buy school supplies.

He completed grade school in March 1925 with a rating of “excellent.”

Love of his life

But while he did well in grade school, Bacani almost couldn’t go to high school. Money was tight.

His mother had remarried and had eight more children, and she and her husband could not afford to pay for Bacani’s high school tuition and books.

So Bacani sought the help of his wealthy maternal grandfather, Don Vicente Cayaba, who agreed to shoulder his school expenses. In June 1925, Bacani enrolled at Isabela High School, a place that would make an important difference in his life.

Unknown to him, the girl who was to become his wife—Saturnina Sarangay—was going to the same high school.

“Nina and I never knew each other. We were just two individuals, part of the big crowds,” Bacani says.

He did not meet “the love of my life” until 1928, during a stage production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He played one of the dwarfs, and she, one of the fairies.

It took Bacani eight years to summon the gumption to confess his feelings to Sarangay.

With Dumas’ help

On Valentine’s Day in 1936, he sent her a card. A month later, he made “a formal declaration of my admiration and love.”

But Sarangay was elusive. She wanted to be a nun and did not write back.

Bacani worked harder to win her over. He kept writing, sometimes three letters a day, but still no luck.

Desperate to get a response, he “borrowed” a few lines from Alexander Dumas:

If your love and happiness could only be purchased with the last drop of my blood, I would shed that drop…

Dumas did the trick. Bacani and Sarangay were married on May 26, 1937.

Bacani describes the wedding as “simple yet so significant, inexpensive but well attended.”

He adds: “God was there to join two young hearts together with solemn vows so strong and so sacred that only death can part us.”

Wartime

Life was wonderful until December 1941 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, then a US commonwealth.

President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched all military units. Men of age, including Bacani, were drafted to the Philippine Commonwealth Army.

His wife was then pregnant with their third child but he had to leave her along with their son and daughter.

During one encounter with Japanese soldiers, Bacani’s regiment ran out of ammunition. They were also outnumbered. “We had to surrender, and became prisoners of war,” he says.

Bacani and several other Filipino POWs were taken to a Japanese garrison in Pampanga.

As a result of his interrogation, when the Japanese learned that he was not actually a soldier and was just forced to enlist following the orders of the US president, Bacani was released in March 1942.

The war continued. Japanese air raids became more frequent. From Manila, Bacani’s wife and two children had to flee to Isabela.

Meanwhile, Bacani had been walking nonstop for five days and was exhausted.

By the time he reached a barrio where a family offered to take him in, he was already ill and fighting for his life.

“I was on my sickbed for three-and-a-half months. I was practically reduced to bones,” he says. “I became strong because of God.”

Reunion

When he became well enough to walk, Bacani began his journey back to Isabela, where his wife was anxiously waiting.

They were reunited on June 18, 1942.

After the war, Bacani moved his family back to Manila where he worked as a teacher and built a four-bedroom house for his family.

Between writing lesson plans, he wrote textbooks. He used the book sales to pay for his children’s college tuition.

In 1949, Bacani resigned as a teacher and worked as an assistant registrar at the University of the East (UE) in Manila. In 1966, he was promoted to the post of college registrar.

It was during his stint as registrar that he found 12 employees altering the grades of students for a fee. All 12 employees were eventually dismissed.

Bacani suspected this to be the cause of threatening messages to his children from anonymous callers: “Tell your father his days are numbered.”

He had to carry a .38 cal. revolver, “fully loaded, unlocked, ready to shoot.”

Immigration

In February 1976, Bacani, then 65, retired from UE.

He and his wife moved to the United States after six months, their son Robert, a doctor in California, having filed a petition for them to become US permanent residents.

The couple decided to settle in Virginia because, Bacani says, “this is the state for lovers.”

Life was pleasant for the Bacanis until October 1986, when their fourth child, Jojo, suffered a cerebral stroke. Jojo lived but practically became a vegetable.

In January 2005, Bacani experienced what he calls the greatest shock of his life when his middle child Vina died of cancer.

As if her death were not devastating enough, Jojo succumbed to cardiac arrest two months later.

“I was totally upset,” Bacani says.

But he moved on. “I still have my wife,” he says.

They celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary last month.

Dinner

Nina Bacani, now 95, is on the phone when her husband arrives home from work at 5:30 p.m.

She quickly says goodbye and motions him to the dining table laden with his favorites—baked chicken pasta, spring rolls and pudding, which she spent the whole afternoon cooking.

There are desserts on the table, but Nina is careful to keep these far from Bacani. “It’s bad for your health,” she says.

“But I can eat anything,” argues Bacani, who was hospitalized for two weeks last year with a blood clot in his left arm.

“No. You should try this,” Nina tells him, spooning pasta on his plate.

As they eat, they take turns at giving a rundown of their day’s activities. He narrates his encounter with Diann Sims, and she recalls the phone conversations she had with relatives and friends.

For the Bacanis, “friends” are mostly people they met in church. Most, if not all, of their contemporaries in the Philippines and in the United States are dead.

It’s sad, of course, but in a way it has given Bacani one more job to do: He has a collection of the eulogies he delivered at all the funerals, and he wants to get it published.

“This is the job that I think God outlined for me,” Bacani says. “After this, I’m ready.”

* * *

(The author is completing a master’s degree in journalism at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She wrote this piece for her profile-writing class at Harvard.)(PDI)

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