Header Ads

Remembering Brother Greg

There was something surreal, the day the late Brother Gregory Refuerzo was laid to rest, about his coffin resting for prolonged moments in the middle of the square under bright sunlight for the simple reason that his coffin was too long to fit inside the concrete tomb that was prepared for him. Running repairs were made which, were it not for the severity of the occasion, almost looked comical if just for the reason that the funeral ritual could not be completed.

At least, we all knew he was going nowhere. He was in Lipa for good; and that was what he always wanted, anyway. I think he was assigned to Lipa three of four times in all. Each time he was assigned away from the school, we would be welcoming him back just a few years later.

My first encounter with Brother Greg was when I was still a bright-eyed young freshman high school student. One of our teachers gave up on us mid-year. The school was still exclusively for boys back then and – well – things could get out of hand in our freshman class.

Brother Greg generously took over to try to put the fear of God in all of us little rascals. Not that he really needed to try. He came with a reputation for being strict. The subject – gulp – was Math. That was why I never even remotely considered him among my favourite teachers. And not that I ever even remotely wondered if I was ever among his favourite students.

It was the subject, mind; not the personality. In all fairness, we used to wonder where the reputation came from. He was actually even kind to us; albeit, we could not fool around like we used to. I mean, the subject was hard enough, for crying out loud. Who would want to fool around; and especially as the good Brother made it clear that grades had to be earned.

There was one incident that I would forever remember Brother Greg for. The late sixties and the early seventies were known for student activism around the world. By 1971, it had arrived in Lipa courtesy of Manila boys sent over to the province to spare them from the unrest in the Big City. Except that they themselves brought the unrest over...

One day, the student council got tired of haircuts being forced upon the students – and this was the era when it was unfashionable to have short hair; and yes, I mean for boys – and organized a mass walkout. Students, on cue, left their classrooms and rampaged down the corridors, banging on the doors to flush out the killjoys.

Uhrm... We were a “cream” class; and so, I suppose, we were in the killjoy category. We were having Math when the fracas started; and Brother Greg just told us to close the two doors and went on with class as though nothing unusual was going on. He ignored the first wave of students banging on the doors even if his lecture was being disturbed.

When another wave arrived, he opened the front door, stood in front of the protestors and said, “You are disturbing my class!” Anyone who has ever been in a Brother Greg class will know that even when he raised his voice – which was seldom – it was never really loud at all. Yet, just his mere presence was enough to cow even the most brazen of the protestors.

If memory serves me right, most of the anger was directed at the Principal, Brother Crisanto Moreno. It was his PMA background, students told each other. He wanted students to look like soldiers!

Brother Greg was reassigned to another school the following year. Among students, it was whispered that it was actually him – and not Brother Crisanto – who was, in fact, vehemently against long hair. This will have to forever be among the things that I forgot to ask him about, particularly as he later became my co-teacher.

I would see Brother Greg every once in a while when I was in college in Manila. By the time I was back in Lipa seeking a teaching position, he was also back in the school as its director. Yes, he was the one I went to see to ask about the financial aspect of the job; and no, we shall not talk about it because it will raise my blood pressure.

For the record, none of us went public with how much we made as employees. Not only was the subject inappropriate; it was also embarrassing. To be perfectly fair, the school did not have even a fraction of the money it does these days.

The Brother Lolo – Brother Rafael Donato – used to say that he was not the archetypal Ilocano because he liked to spend money. I am sure the stereotype of the Ilocano as frugal is totally undeserved; but if there was one Ilocano who, in fact, did deserve it, that would have to be Brother Greg.

I mean, when I asked if I was to receive a stipend for taking over the coaching of the football team, I was told in his quiet and very pleasant way that “You see Rixie (Ilocano ngâ eh!), the school does not have a lot of money at the moment but I will make sure you get something the moment we can afford it.”

I think it was not until my fourth year of coaching that I finally received a stipend; and no, we will not talk about how much it was, either. My blood pressure...

In 1986, we had two American Brothers who came to visit. They were, naturally, billeted at the Brothers’ Community.

One of the Brothers came to speak to my Homeroom. I was happy to hand the floor over to him and made my way to the back of the room. The American Brother began his talk by saying something about experiencing a new culture. “We had this interesting meal with the Filipino Brothers,” he began. “It was this strange fish fried crispy and a strange looking red egg.”

That sounded a lot like Brother Greg! The American Brother did not say if there was pahô; and, in fairness, he tried his best to make it sound as though he found it exciting to come face-to-face with Philippine culture. I do not think that he succeeded because what I recall to this day is that his tone was something close to distaste.

In truth, Brother Greg was just one of those old-fashioned religious persons who took the vow of poverty seriously – perhaps, even too seriously. But I say this in all fondness because Brother Greg – at least for the era – was right for Lipa. He had no pretensions about who he was and found no joy in being other than simple.

My guess is that the American Brothers were treated to frenggoi – pritong galunggong – but that was just Brother Greg being himself whoever was in front of him. If I know Brother Greg at all, his line of thinking was probably that since they had come to learn about us – well – they did...

No write-up about Brother Greg will ever be complete without a mention of volleyball. He so loved the game! I mean, if afternoons after hours were sacred to me for the football, these were sacred to him as well for the volleyball. Despite the work that he had to do – he taught as well as managed the school – the courts were not complete unless he was there training young high school boys and girls.

In fact, he was responsible for bringing a certain Rosel Sumcad to Lipa. And the rest, as an old cliché goes, has been history...

There was this anecdote that one colleague – quite a school personality, in fact – still loves to tell even to this day. He was in conversation with another colleague who had noticed that the basketball board and goal in the Old Gym seemed to need a fresh coat of paint and a new net.

The colleague’s response was scathing. “Iyan baga namang si Brother Greg!” he declared, “lagî nang volleyball ang inuna!” The subject of his tirade, however, was approaching behind him and heard every word. The colleague wished he could be somewhere else very quickly; but the board was painted and new nets were installed the following week.

Brother Greg went off again on another assignment before the end of the eighties; and I think when he returned again, I was already in adminstration and he had come back to retire. Like the Brother Lolo, he just loved the place; and, in a way, there was something romantic about the two of them being in the same community in their twilight years.

The Brother Lolo was kind. He had Brother Greg made as one of the school’s signatories. More to make the latter feel needed than to give him something to do. It was also obvious that his health was starting to fail.

He was increasingly in the hospital the last few months of his life; and one day, we received that sad news that he had passed away.

I do not think that I was ever that close to Brother Greg. That said, I knew him – and he knew me – in various stages of my life. I was a student in his Math class; he was the director when I first started teaching; and he was a retired aging Brother in the community when I was already in management.

Inside that white coffin that glistened in the sunlight in the middle of the square was a man who was almost like a parent to the school, somebody who kept coming back to see how it was doing and finally returned for good when it had made something of itself. Because I myself was there to see him come and go over the years and finally arrive for good, I will always remember him fondly even if I was never really among his closest circle of friends. And because he was also very much part of my life...

When they finally managed to place his coffin inside the tomb and the tomb was finally sealed, all that ever meant was that Brother Greg was in Lipa. And he ain’t goin’ nowhere...