Tribute to a Filipino Olympian and humanitarian

Published September 2, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Sonny Coloma


Sonny Coloma

More than four decades ago, an historic moment took place on a field not far from the Rockwell power plant in Makati. Outside a building of the Rotary Club of Makati, the first Health, Hunger and Humanity (3H) project of Rotary International (RI) was signed between then Philippine Secretary of Health Enrique Garcia and RI President James Bomar. After the signing, Mr. Bomar administered the first dose of the Sabin oral polio vaccine to a Filipino boy. Thus was launched, on September 29, 1979, a global movement to eradicate the scourge of poliomyelitis that afflicted mostly infants and young people.

The event was made possible through the efforts of Rafael G. Hechanova, then District Governor of Rotary in metropolitan Manila, the Bicol provinces, and the islands of Palawan, Marinduque and Mindoro.

Last July 26, Mr. Hechanova was jubilant after weightlifter Hidylin Diaz won the Philippines’ first-ever Olympic gold medal. He said he was happy to witness such an uplifting moment after 97 years of Filipino participation in the Olympics.

In 1952, he was co-captain of the Philippine basketball team that competed and placed ninth in the summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. A year earlier, during the first Asian Games held in India, he was the captain of the Philippine team that won the championship over Japan, Iran, India and Burma.

The Philippine Sportswriters Association named him as Mr. Basketball in 1951, following his captaincy of the University of Santo Tomas varsity team that won the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) championship that also won the national open championship.

He capped that event-filled year 60 years ago by hurdling the professional licensure examination for architects administered by the Civil Service Commission.

For four more years, he pursued a career in the commercial leagues, playing for the champion YCO team before retiring from athletic competition to focus on his professional career as an architect.

It was while canvassing for construction materials, that he was invited to attend a meeting of the Rotary Club of Makati that he eventually joined and led as its President before becoming District Governor. He went on to be elected as Director of Rotary International, serving from 1996 to 1998.

For more than five decades, Mr. Hechanova dedicated himself to humanitarian service.

When the Philippine College of Rotary Governors (PCRG) honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award, an anecdote was shared about a life-changing moment that he experienced while undergoing a routine medical check-up. It turns out that “he became allergic to an X-ray dye that was injected into his bloodstream and no antidote was immediately available.” Fortuitously, while being transferred to another part of the hospital where the antidote was stored, “someone stepped out of the elevator with the antidote in his hand.”

At this moment of epiphany, he was moved to ask, “What have I done to deserve this goodness? What have I done in my life for other people?”

This and other poignant, heartwarming vignettes are shared in Love for Others is What Rotary Is, a biographical chronicle compiled by Rotarian journalist and public communication specialist Melandrew Velasco, in collaboration with Raissa Hechanova-Posadas, that was published when he turned 90 and marked his golden jubilee as a Rotarian.

Animated by his moment of epiphany, he tirelessly labored in the fields of Rotary service.

I recall, too, his abiding concern for the Filipino nation and people during my stint in the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III. I found in my email an interesting message that he sent as soon as he learned I had returned from an extended official mission abroad. He observed that “travel in SLEX is fast because both ends are clear – (there is) free flow (of moving traffic). He observed:

“In EDSA, the north end is fairly clear but the south end in Pasay is not. That elevated road to MOA and Macapagal Blvd. to Cavitex must be started to free the flow at this end. All choke points in between must be free-flowing.” Then he proceeded to make a critique of traffic flow at each major intersection of EDSA. He proposed, among others, the widening of Guadalupe Bridge so that “the south lane going east should have one or two elevated lanes going to Taguig and C5 at the intersection in EDSA,” and concluded thus: “These suggestions will not completely solve the problem but it certainly will help.”

Soft spoken and self-effacing, he was a paragon of civility. Principled as he was, he never hesitated to speak his mind whenever he felt that certain actions or words had been done or uttered inappropriately. But he always did so without anger and resentment, and always with an abundance of tactfulness and civility. Such was the greatness of Rafael Gamboa Hechanova, 93-years-old. He passed away last August 26 bequeathing a legacy of service to the Filipino nation and to the world as an Olympian, Rotary global leader and a humanitarian.