By YVONNE T. CHUA
CHIT ESTELLA and I were well on our way to obtaining tenure as professors of journalism at the University of the Philippines in Diliman when classes open this June. We had survived the university’s dreaded “up or out” policy after graduating this month with a master’s degree in public management from the UP Open University.
At long last, we could put aside the gnawing fear we had shared for years – of whether longtime, aging professional journalists like us could and should still make a life out of the academe.
Both of us could also focus more on Vera Files, the small media nonprofit group we co-founded with four journalist-friends three years ago to keep us abreast not only of the journalism profession but, more important, of one another.
Except that Chit — formally Lourdes Estella-Simbulan — is no longer around.
At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, as my family and I were about to have supper, the call came. A bus had rammed the cab that was taking Chit to a dinner date with some high school friends.
The senseless killing brought to an abrupt close the illustrious career of one of the country’s most principled journalists and best journalism educators who has left many of us in awe, me for a good 34 years.
She preferred to use the byline “Chit Estella” in her stories, but to her students she was “Ma’am Simbulan.”
I first met Chit when I was applying for membership at the UP Journalism Club of which she was the president. (At the time of her death, she was UPJC’s faculty adviser.)
A freshman then, I was so taken aback by the severe-looking Chit and her equally severe questioning about the state of Philippine journalism – the country was under martial law then – that I considered myself unworthy to be near her, more so move in her circle.
But it was a different Chit I would get to know when we became beat reporters, she for the Manila Evening Post and I for the Philippines Daily Express. There was something about her that made people gravitate toward her.
Her concern for people, especially the downtrodden, was genuine and, in more recent years, to the point of imbibing the negative vibes that made her so sick she had to see a doctor.
Chit held steadfast to her political and moral beliefs. But, at the same time, she possessed this admirable capacity to tolerate other views that enabled her to engage in lively discussions of ticklish issues like Marxism and religion, without losing friends.
As well, Chit’s wry sense of humor and ability to laugh at herself endeared her to many people.
On a few occasions, also in more recent years, she tried to make light of the hysterectomy she underwent before she got married, which I know was truly difficult, given how fond she was of children. (In fact, Chit’s love story with husband Roland deserves to be written up.)
It was after EDSA I that Chit and I got a chance to work for the same newspaper. It had taken more than a year to convince her to leave the English-language tabloid Tempo and join Ang Pahayagang Malaya as one of its senior reporters. I had joined the paper earlier — when it was an alternative newspaper during the Marcos dictatorship — and I was by then one of its editors.
For seven years, Chit wrote insightful stories – on the presidency of Corazon Aquino and later on Congress under Aquino’s successor Fidel Ramos. Her no-frills, substantial reportage prompted a government official to once remark to me that Chit “writes like a man.”
It was not gender-sensitive at all, but the compliment was genuine and sincere.
Chit’s willingness to help others made her one of the most loved at Malaya. She was an indefatigable union leader, arguing quietly but firmly for the rights of employees, especially during collective bargaining season.
Without prodding from the editors, Chit and senior reporter Ellen Tordesillas, also a Vera Files co-founder and now its president, took it upon themselves to patiently mentor junior reporters, keeping alive the “cub” system that had long gone out of practice in many newsrooms.
Saturday nights we always looked forward to. After all, it was our “girls’ night out,” with Marites Sison (now in Toronto) sometimes joining us. Chit and Ellen would sit at the news desk and help edit stories, so I could put the paper to bed early.
Good weather or bad, we would hie off to restaurants in different pockets of the metropolis where we would stay till midnight swapping stories, ranging from the state of the country’s affairs, to affairs of the heart of people in government and in newsrooms.
Not even the volcanic ash from Mt. Pinatubo that fell over Metro Manila one Saturday night in June 1991 could stop us from pushing through with our weekly night out. We only cut short dinner when Chit declared with a hearty laugh, “Ladies, let’s get going. Ayaw talagang tumigil ang snow (The snow really won’t stop).”
Chit’s and my days at Malaya ended in 1994. I moved to a trade magazine and later to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Chit had been working at the news desk of the Philippine Daily Inquirer for months when she was offered the position of managing editor of the Manila Times, owned at the time by the Gokongwei family.
To Chit and the new set of editors of the Times fell the challenge of restoring the newspaper’s glorious tradition of independent and courageous reporting.
Trouble started in 1999 when then President Joseph Estrada slapped the daily with a P101-million libel suit over a report on revisions made to a government contract that favored the Argentinian power firm IMPSA.
The agreement among the Times editors was clear, especially to Chit, who had painstakingly kept the correspondence, including e-mail exchanges: All of them were to resign should the publisher apologize to the President. But when that happened, only she and several editors handed in their resignations.
The other top editors chose to stay, leading to a highly publicized acrimonious debate over journalistic and personal principles, and a bitter parting of ways between friends that pained Chit a lot.
Life after Manila Times for Chit was as editor-in-chief of the short-lived Pinoy Times, a political tabloid formed by the multi-awarded Eugenia Apostol. Chit and her friends, including Vera Files co-founder and trustee Booma Cruz, continued to publish exposes about Estrada. The pieces she wrote in Filipino for Pinoy Times were as powerful as those she had penned in English.
The tabloid closed shortly after Estrada’s ouster in 2001, and Chit settled into a quieter life: Teaching journalism part-time at UP and Ateneo, and editing books and later the PJR Reports for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
In 2005, she decided it was time to apply for a full-time teaching position at UP.
When I myself went full-time at the UP more than a year later, Chit offered right away to share her cubicle with me as we awaited the physical expansion of the department and I could get my own space.
On days when we could, we would grab lunch together or spend late afternoons walking around the Academic Oval.
Some days, Chit would hitch a ride from the university to the taxi stand on Elliptical Circle. We would drive past the Ayala Technohub, little knowing that this was where she would meet her untimely death on Friday.
We met up old friends like Ellen, Booma, Luz Rimban and Jennifer Santillan-Santiago. It was in one of those meetings three years ago that we decided to embark on a venture that would lead us to continue writing and editing, even without pay, and meet even more frequently, for as long as we could: Vera Files.
As corporate secretary of Vera Files, Chit was in charge of calling the meetings. She had suggested one in early March, but most of us thought it best to meet by summer’s end.
In a few weeks, summer will be over and classes will open. It is hard to picture life at UP and at Vera Files without Chit. But I also know Chit would not want her death to immobilize family and friends. She had lived the life she wanted, and is probably yelling at us now with a hearty laugh, “Ladies, let’s get going.”
Hanggang sa muli nating pagkikita, Chit.
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