Remembering Brother Ben

A Eulogy for Br. Benedict by Elfren Sicangco Cruz

Last Saturday, January 3, 2004 Brother Josiah Benedict FSC passed away, at the age of 76, while vacationing in Baguio City. He first arrived in the Philippines more than 45 years ago on September 28, 1958 on a mission which started in 1911, the date the first La Salle school opened in the Philippines.

In 1905, the recently appointed Archbishop of Manila, Monsignor Harty first wrote a letter to Brother Gabriel Marie, superior general of the Brothers of the Christian Schools asking that a La Salle school be established in the Philippines.

At that time, the Catholic faith in the country was being slowly eroded because the Spanish-style, Catholic-supported education was losing ground to the increasingly popular secular education established by the arrival of nearly a thousand American teachers or Thomasites, who were mainly Protestants.

Archbishop Harty realized that only new educational centers superior to their secular counterparts could restore confidence in the values of a Christian education. But, it was a personal letter from Pope Pius X that motivated the Brothers to finally agree and the American Brothers started arriving in the Philippines with Brother Benedict as part of the last wave.

Today De La Salle University Manila has become the best private university in the country as attested by the fact that it is the only university that has attained a Level IV PAASCU Accreditation. It owes this stature to the La Salle Brothers, past and present, who dedicated their lives to the sole mission of educating the youth.

There is no more graphic way to describe Brother Ben, as he was popularly known, except to say that he was an institution in the De La Salle family. He was the embodiment of the mission of the La Salle Brothers which is to provide the finest possible Christian education to society.

There are those who may look for the best words to describe him. But, to me the best description of his life was that he was a teacher. His greatest legacies are the thousands of La Sallians that were influenced and touched by his life.

Aside from teaching, he is best known of his stewardship of the De La Salle Alumni Association from 1978 to 2002. He provided the emotional and physical link between the school and its thousands of alumni.

Brother Ben was born in Chicago, Illinois and entered the Junior Novitiate at the age of thirteen. He finished his B.S. Mathematics at St. Mary's College, a La Salle school in California where Brother Andrew Gonzalez would also finish his college education. He finished two MAs: a Teaching major in Mathematics at the University of Kansas and the Notre Dame University.

After arriving in the Philippines, he became the principal of La Salle High School (then located in Taft) from 1959 to 1963. Many of his students became prominent names in business and government like Peter Garrucho, Ronnie Zamora, Bomboy Araneta, Jose Cuisia, Ramon Del Rosario, Jr., Joey Laurel and Bobby de Ocampo.

After that, he became Dean of the College of Engineering and Chairman of the Mathematics Department of De La Salle College (now DLSU). I remember that he was a highly visible personality in the campus. He was faculty adviser of several campus organizations, especially those geared for engineering students. He even participated in intramural games. I still recall a soccer game where I played for the Engineering team.

My elbow was fractured after a bad fall when Cheche Olives, of the Engineering team, tripped me. This was a common occurrence during those days when intramural rivalries were as intense as the UAAP games today.

Anyway, Brother Ben physically carried me to the parking lot and put me in a vehicle to go to the hospital. However, after seeing me off he naturally went back to finish playing in the game.

The '60s were exciting times in all campuses throughout the world. La Salle had its first student strike and its student leaders were at the forefront of the First Quarter Storm protest movement. Brother Ben did not exactly share their views. But even Chito Sta. Romana, who was then La Salle's acknowledged activist leader, today has found memories of Brother Ben. According to Chito, "He was an icon in his own right. He molded many La Sallians and not just the engineers."

But, Chito had one interesting anecdote. He was able to return the Philippines only after the first EDSA Revolution, after fourteen years exile in Mainland China. Shortly after his return, he remembers receiving a letter from Brother Ben asking donations for computers for the university.

Aside from his students, Brother Ben's two other obsessions were computers and raising funds for the school. He became Director of the University Computer Center from 1973 to 1979.

He started the university's journey to its present status as the leader in information technology education in Southeast Asia. He was talking of gigabytes and database management years before the term IT revolution was coined.

But during the last decade in his life, Brother Ben's primary obsession were the alumni and the De La Salle Alumni Association. He had been active in alumni affairs since his arrival in 1958 and was, in fact, the alumni moderator from 1963 to 1969. For a long while, he ran the Alumni Association almost single handedly and saw it grow to a network of close to thirty chapters in six countries.

Danding Lucero, a former DLSAA president, worked closely with him in the restoration of the Chapel of the Most Blessed Sacrament at the Taft campus. He says, "Brother Ben's network of friends among the alumni is unparalleled. He was the one willing to spend time with them. They were his family."

Brother Lucian, who was his closest friend, said: "No one has ever organized and followed up the Old Boys, the alumni, better than Ben. He has the record for rattling off hundred of nicknames of former students. He has the record for having the greatest number of warm beds awaiting him anywhere in the world when he is traveling."

Danding Lucero once suggested to Brother Ben that he spend more time in Chicago with his mother and sister. His reply was, "My family knows that the Philippines is my home."

Until his passing away, Brother Ben was still going regularly to his office at the Alumni Association and still answering calls from his La Sallian family. Tonight, at six p.m., will be the alumni mass at the Chapel of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

On Wednesday, January 6, 2004 is the date of his funeral which will be in Lipa City.

Brother Benedict, FSC may have been born a Polish American. But he will be buried as a Filipino in the country he has learned to call his home.

Elfren S. Cruz is a professor of Strategic Management at the De La Salle University Graduate School of Business.