Remembering Sir Jess Cruz


(Editor’s Note: Published by the Philippine Star, Lifestyle, the Arts and Culture, Monday June 13, 2005.)

The man had been laid to rest. Eulogies had been delivered, and they all said something about Jess Cruz, the writer, the artist, the teacher. Now we will tell you something about Sir Jess, the man. 

In the broad traditional sense, that “we” who got to know Sir Jess may include all the thousands of FEU students who had been fortunate enough to have him for a teacher for maybe just one or maybe more course requirements. Though in truth, then as now, a vast majority had but a fleeting glimpse of the teacher as a person other than the one who ultimately gave the grades.

So this “we” is about a smaller, more tightly focused “we”: We who got to know the man, listened to what he had to say, and fell under the spell of his intelligent mind, dedicated service and faithfulness to his craft. You could call us “disciples” or “followers” or whatever. We could be seen tagging along Sir Jess wherever he may be going, milking his thoughts on whatever subject was at hand, digesting carefully what he had to say, repeating his words among ourselves and then later claiming them as our own. We would do anything and everything for him. To say that we idolized Sir Jess would be an understatement. We loved the man. 

His pad along Recto St. had been witness to our countless visits as well as those from students hoping to find a little inspiration in the mere presence of this white-haired guru. Tears had been shed in Sir Jess’ living room as its walls silently listened to some problem by nature emotional or otherwise. Gripes had been aired inside this room — against the administration, against an imagined wrong, against anyone and anything under the sun. Where there were tears and gripes, there was also laughter. Get-togethers, bacchanalians, we all had our times in his pad. 

Sir Jess, whenever he was around, cut a very distinctive figure. This may have something to do with the way he stood, or the way he walked or the clothes he wore. It may even be the closely cropped white (silver, whichever one may choose to call it) hair. In a dirty white polo shirt and equally dirty white slacks, Sir Jess projected an air of casualness intrinsic to the man himself. 

The color of his hair and the lines on his still youthful face did not belie the years he had put behind him. With all that lifelong experience stored from seventy years of earthly life, he had a lot of stories to tell. The way he would tell those stories was an experience in itself. And yes, we were there to savor each word and relive those bundles of memories with him. 

Sir Jess was a happy man. The smile on his face told you so. He always had a smile for everyone, flashing a grin now and then in response to some teenaged girl flirty greeting or a tentative half smile from a gangling college boy. He would get such countless greetings everyday of his years as a teacher as he made his way around the campus. And when really pleased, his smile would go several notches higher, and one could see his eyes smiling as well. Times like those, we’d get a glimpse of a younger man peeping out of the older man’s face. 

As close as he was to his students, he was almost always at odds with the university’s higher-ups. Sir Jess would stand up and speak out against any policy he felt would be detrimental to the students and the university. He would fight his battles alone, and more often than not, he would always emerge the winner. Thus would he earn the admiration and respect of his students and colleagues, and the enmity of the powers-that-be.  

A source of great pride and for him a matter of honor was the fact that Sir Jess never missed a class during all those years. Except of course when he was stricken down with a stroke that robbed him most of his vitality and minor details from his memory. Still, he went on teaching as soon as he could, and never again missed another class.

Despite the burden of the years and the pressures of work weighing down on his rather precarious health and tired body, Sir Jess had plenty to look forward to. He had a birthday, his 70th, coming up. A deal struck with the University of the East promised better returns for the 2nd edition textbook he and his friends published. Another busy school year, his last before putting a finish to a fruitful teaching career, was about to begin. Still further ahead was a planned trip abroad, perhaps Australia – a well-deserved retirement treat after almost half a century of nurturing young minds and molding souls. In the meantime, there were movies to watch, books to read, plays and concerts to see, and deadlines to meet. There were plenty of things still to be done. At his age and in his physical disposition, the times ahead promised to be very trying, indeed. Sir Jess, being the man he was, would do all that needed to be done just as he always had – with a smile on his face, a cup of coke and a cigarette in his hands. 

That was how things stood, until one Tuesday late last month. With plans for his coming birthday bash, and the prospect of done deal with UE, it was a cheerful Sir Jess who came in to the Literature Department Office, unknown to all that it would be the last time we would see him there. On that day, Sir Jess suffered his third stroke. He celebrated his birthday a few days later – on a hospital bed strapped with hoses and tubes. Like his previous birthdays, he was surrounded by people who loved him. This time, however, there were no food and drinks floating around, no anecdotes to recall and retell, no tall tales to spin, no jokes, no laughter. There was only subdued silence as his family and friends looked on helplessly and prayed. Words of encouragement were whispered, urging him to hold on and never let go, as much for him as well as for us. And two days after turning70, Sir Jess breathed his last. 

Since then, Sir Jess has been eulogized many times over. His fellows affirmed his excellence as an educator, an artist, a musician and a writer. Truly, they said, Jess Cruz was an artist, underrated maybe, but in truth a great artist. 

We all knew this truth, even without the praises and tributes being bandied about. Nobody had to tell us. We knew. Because we were his students, and he was our mentor, we knew. 

It was Sir Jess who taught us, and what he taught us went beyond the letters and pages of fine print in a book. He opened our eyes and minds, awakened our senses, and led us into the realm of the arts. He made us see the aesthetically sublime while letting us recognize the mediocre and the vulgar. He fine-tuned our ears to classical music, introduced us to the masters and broadened our limited horizons. Sir Jess sent us to see the world without its boundaries of time and space through the eyes of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Hemingway and Joyce. His mastery of the pen and the fluidity of his language inspired us to weave our own prose and poetry. Better still, some of us turned to teach, so others may learn what we had learned and learning still — until we have come full circle. 

We feel the loss of Sir Jess very deeply. We are saddened by his death. Although it would be very hard to retrace the man’s footsteps, we intend to follow his path as closely as we could, as best as we could. That would be the least we can do for the man who had given so much of himself so that we may live in accordance with the classical ideals. 

There are those who say that time moves in concentric circles, and depending on where you were, or how perceptive you were, you just might hear words from another time spoken again. Here we are, standing still and listening closely, his words still ringing in our ears, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.©





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