The man behind MB's 'quiet confidence'

The quiet general, who was the source of his troops' quiet confidence in battle, that was what Crispulo Julio “Jun” Icban, Jr. meant to the Manila Bulletin reporters.

Now that the "general" is gone, MB reporters can't help but reflect on how their beloved "Sir Icban" made them believe that they were each extraordinary, even if all one did was perform a job.

"Reporters, like a normal person, have insecurities. For a bunch of reasons, I sometimes feel limited or not as good when compared to my colleagues from other media outfits," said Ellson Quismorio, an MB reporter since August 2003.

According to Quismorio, such insecurities – whether warranted or not – stem from not having as many gadgets as the competition's reporter, or simply not being as experienced or "embedded" as others in the beat.

"But knowing that Sir Icban was at the helm in our newsroom always made me feel that we had the 'great equalizer'. He was very sharp even at 85. No other media organization had Sir Icban and the reputation he carried with him, only MB. And it felt like a privilege," he said.

Quismorio likened such belief to the "my dad can beat up your dad" mentality from old school playgrounds or backyards fights.

"It may be childish to think (of it) that way, but it makes a lot of sense. It's certainly not bad to be a soldier under General George Smith Patton Jr. in World War II, if you knew how much fear he caused to the German side," said Quismorio

Icban's reputation as an astute figure in Philippine journalism isn't without basis. In 1954, Icban graduated magna cum laude from the University of the Philippines (UP), with a Bachelor of Arts in English degree.

He also took up a Master of Arts in Journalism course at the Syracuse University, New York State, USA in 1958 on Fulbright and Smith-Mundt grants.

When he passed away last April 5, Icban had spent the last 18 years of his life as MB's editor in chief. He was also appointed as press secretary by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2010.

"The urge to not disappoint him was strong," Quismorio said.

Despite his credentials, Sir Icban didn't pretend to know everything--in fact he would humbly ask reporters about details from the beat that he would otherwise not have a chance to learn.

"One day in 2010, I was surprised to receive a call from the office of Sir Jun," said Aaron Recuenco, another senior reporter of MB.

"The secretary told me that he (Icban) wanted to talk to me. If the EIC is calling you, that means you could be in trouble," he jokingly recounted.

"But to my surprise, he just asked me to explain about police ranks and inquired who were holding the top four positions in the PNP (Philippine National Police). A few months later, he called me up again, this time to ask about who would be the next Chief PNP," narrated Recuenco.

"Since then, he would always ask me, 'So how’s the PNP?' every time we would cross paths in the office," he said.

Like any great general, Sir Icban knew how to motivate his "troops" to bring out the best in them. Of course he made them nervous by default too.

Chito Chavez, a correspondent, recalled having "butterflies in his stomach" when he first met Sir Icban at the MB office in 1989.

"I remember that then-news editor Cris 'Jun' Icban approached me, and told me to cover the Western Police District (WPD) beat because the regular reporter was on leave. Right off the bat, Mr. Icban told me, 'Takbo na (Go now) Chito!'" he said.

"There were no fax machines or email back then, and, looking back, that made my job a little bit of a challenge. As far as I remember, I submitted around four police stories, which Mr. Icban edited. I was so stressed out fearing that I would not live up to his expectations," said Chavez.

What Chavez didn't realize during his nerve-wracking first day in the WPD beat was that his news editor eagerly awaited his output.

"We had ‘catchers’ who typed the stories we dictated over the phone. Unknowingly, Mr. Icban was inside the radio room where the ‘catchers’ were stationed waiting for my stories. It turned out that Mr. Icban was hell bent on giving me the test."

The stories were published the following day. "Mr. Icban patted me on the back and said, 'Not bad on your first day,'" Chavez said, feeling proud that he had survived his baptism of fire at an unfamiliar beat. Sir Icban would become his wedding godfather or "ninong", several years later.

"Small in stature, but full of wisdom – that's what personified my dear ninong," said Chavez, who has since moved on to covering national agencies.

Meanwhile, younger writers, one of them Richa Noriega, would try to absorb as much information and inspiration as they can, even if they can only observe their subjects from afar. "I am always fond of watching the humble legend roaming around the newsroom," she said of Sir Icban.

Sir Icban was already the EIC when Noriega was hired as online writer in June 2019. From her seat at the editorial department, Noriega would witness the daily news conferences that the EIC would preside over every day.

"Ladies and gentlemen one is one…,” Sir Icban would usually say, meaning that the first story on the list handed to him earlier would be designated as story no.1, or the banner story for MB's print edition.

"I remember giving wide-eyed looks to my colleagues in the online team while quietly listening in on the story conference, where Sir Icban always called everybody's attention with his strong and respectful voice," the 22-year-old Noriega shared.

She said that seeing the Sir Icban and the senior editors exchange ideas over the news stories "is one of the experiences in the newsroom that I will always treasure."

Noriega attested to the sheer love and dedication that Sir Icban invested in MB's print edition. "Whenever Sir Icban found mistakes in the print, he would walk over himself beside the editor or the page layout artist, bringing the dummy pages to show the corrections he made."

Noriega said: "Despite his strong presence and formal aura, Sir Icban always greeted us with his warm smile."

Noriega became a regular reporter in February 2021, just a few weeks before Sir Icban was hospitalized. He worked until the very end, writing editorials on his hospital bed.

An old English song says, "old soldiers never die, they simply fade away." Neither do editors, but most especially Sir Icban.