Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Become an Honest Bureaucrat

Wilhelm G. Ortaliz: He Grew Orchids

By Mila D. Aguilar

[From Good Morning Philippines, Vol. 1 No. 10]

How does one stay honest as a government bureaucrat? Wilhelm G. Ortaliz’ answer seems to have been to grow orchids. With the campaign against corruption in government as well as in the private sector under way, officials may want to look into his solution.

Ortaliz, fondly called Willie by family and friends, got to a position as high as Assistant Minister of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) under Roberto Ongpin. However, he refused to be appointed permanently in government, preferring to finally become a consultant to Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA) head Lilia De Lima, though he was a CESO -- a Career Executive Service Officer. In government parlance, that means he could not be booted out of government unless under grave circumstances such as a criminal or serious administrative case.

Willie was so fond of orchids that he became Vice President of the Philippine Orchid Society. This was not his only advocacy, however. He was also a Board Director of The One Algon Place Foundation, an advanced behavioral health facility dedicated to the cure of addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, and even computer games.

But no, he wasn’t addicted to orchids.

How he came to love orchids

The only boy among five siblings, Willy had been his mother’s assistant in her small orchid-laden yard in Iloilo, commanded to fetch this and fetch that, water this and water that in lieu of play. As a boy he sort of resented the idea, not knowing that he would later fall in love with it.

Willie’s mother had not graduated from high school because she had gotten married early to a military man, who later retired as an army captain. That made her concerned about her children’s education; she made sure almost all of them, particularly her only son, graduated from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. And he did in 1966, as a consistent scholar of the National Science Development Board (NSDB), with a B.S. in Chemistry. He even went on to get his M.B.A. also from U.P. Diliman after he had obtained his M.S. Chem from Ateneo.

Though he didn’t exactly relish his role in his mother’s garden, in college he “accidentally stumbled into a Philippine Orchid Show in the site where Harrison Plaza now stands” -- as he himself writes. It was here that he met the doyen of the Ponce Enriles, who was also into orchids. However, he noticed that orchids were at that time a prerogative of the rich. Filipina airline stewardesses would bring them into the Philippines at the behest of the rich, who would then grow them exclusively in their gardens. That gave Willie the dream to grow orchids not to hobnob with the rich nor to get rich, but, he told his sister -- so that “time will come when these orchids will be for the common tao.”

Poor as he was, Willie was amiable. He soon made friends with the doyen whom he would come to call Mama Ponce Enrile as well as the other wealthy ladies who knew all about growing the flowers. After his mother, he got his life’s lessons on orchids from them. Later, he would even write about his saga with this family of flowers in his self-deprecating way, proceeding from phalaenopsis to cattleyas to dendrobiums to teret-vandas and then, he writes, “to something else” he does not quite name.

Where he grew them

Since Willie wasn’t wealthy, he grew his first orchids in the compound that his parents had transferred to from Iloilo so that his mother could supervise her children’s college education. But orchids need the morning sun, and his family’s house faced the afternoon sun, so he had to transfer them to the garden of the Lung Center in Quezon City. At that time, the Lung Center was renting out some of its open spaces. Since the hospital executive director then, Dr. Calixto A. Zaldivar Jr., an Ilonggo from Antique and a friend of a family friend, also liked plants, Willie’s orchids were able to stay at the Lung Center for a long time.

But Dr. Zaldivar had to leave the Lung Center at some point, and his replacement did not renew Willie’s contract anymore. Again, Willie was blessed with an offer. A Mr. TaƱedo, who owned unused property in Fairview, offered it to Willie’s orchids for free! He even allowed Willie to put up a house there, the only proviso being that Willie would have to pay the taxes on land and improvements.

It was a good deal, and so Willie stayed on at Fairview for 10 years, up to his death from illness on February 26, 2011.

And he became Willie the gift-giver

At this point you would be asking, so what did Willie’s orchids have to do with being an honest public servant?

Well, let’s put it this way: Willie’s father had taught him and his sisters the value of honesty. Their father told them time and again, “Safeguard the family name because it’s the only thing that you can bring to your grave.”

From the time Willie graduated from U.P., he was already employed in government, first by Ting Paterno in the Economic Development Foundation, then at DTI, as assistant minister in charge of such powerful bodies as the Iron and Steel Authority. Once, he received a Betamax at home; the Betamax was accompanied by a calling card. He immediately returned the “gift,” saying he wasn’t interested, but if the donor was serious, to please replace it with two ceiling fans and two floor fans for the Elementary Laboratory of the Philippine Normal College, which he knew to be a hothouse.

“Gifts” that were brought to his office, on the other hand, were raffled off and distributed to indigents.

Anthropologists would tell us that gift-giving was practiced by tribal chieftains from way back to affirm and confirm their power over another tribe. The one who gave the greater gift was deemed to have the greater power over the other.

Willie turned around this gift-giving syndrome by giving gifts himself. Not out of pocket, but out of his orchids, which he grew by the sweat of his brow. For birthdays, he made corsages cradled in beautiful boxes that he fashioned himself. For weddings, he supplied not only corsages, but all the flowers needed going up to the altar. In every office affair, he would stand out with his contribution of orchids to the occasion. Once he even arranged floating flowers with candles in a swimming pool for a Chinese friend in Forbes Park!

Not content with that, for Christmas he would give away his special ensaymada, which he himself kneaded and baked using a total of two sacks of flour!

What can be more valuable, and therefore more powerful, than gifts proffered using one’s labor of love?

Willie’s elder sister Cynthia Ortaliz-Ranada once took over his Lung Center orchids just before they were transferred to Fairview. All those who saw them wanted to buy some, but he would never sell. So finally, just before the transfer, he relented -- he gave his sister the authority to sell them for a brief two days. “Bahala ka na,” he told her.

She sold P25,000 worth of orchids in two days.

That was how much they were worth if he had deigned to become an orchid businessman. But it was not his calling. His calling was to give them away free, cum labor on flower arrangement for corsages worth as much as P350 each.

So his friendships lasted beyond death

And so Wilhelm Ganzon Ortaliz survived the government bureaucracy unscathed, his head held high, the admiration for him abounding. It was in these circumstances that he met Rudin and Annie Gonzales, whose business was trading in steel at the time Willie was in the Iron and Steel Authority. He did not ask anything from them, nor did they offer anything to him. Instead, he even helped them establish The One Algon Place Foundation, a healing center for the behaviorally disabled, taking time out every weekend he was available to brainstorm on the idea in Barangay Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna, where the center is based. Willie’s orchids are there now for all to see.

As to why they are there now is a story in itself. While Willy lay sick at the Kidney Center not wanting to be visited, Annie and Rudin showed up, wanting to take care of him. He tried to shove them off, but Rudin protested vociferously, refusing to forego the privilege of taking care of him even just for a day.

Before he died, Willy mentioned to his sister Cynthia that he wanted to let go of some of his orchids when he recovered. So Cynthia thought of the large Algon property in Cabuyao. On February 26, as he lay comatose at St. Luke’s, she showed the orchids to Annie at Fairview. They then proceeded to St. Luke’s to visit him. Annie distinctly heard Willie say he wanted Algon to have his orchids, comatose as he was. He died soon after.

Today, the organization Willie helped establish, The One Algon Place Foundation, is on its way to well-deserved fame in the field of behavioral sciences. In honor of Willie, it will launch a definitive biography of the man who defied corruption in the government bureaucracy -- by growing orchids. It’s a biography worth waiting for.

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