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Remembering Dr. Tony P. Zantua

Dr. Tony Zantua is one of the most unforgettable human beings I have known. Not so much because he was writer, orator, physician/surgeon, publisher, wit, labor union organizer -- a renaissance man -- but because of the way he taught me to navigate through life like a skilful mariner through uncharted waters. Of course, I never came close to being as skilful as he. Far from it.

But I remember him because it was during my first boat ride as an aspiring voyador in the 1960s that I came to experience the grandness of this man’s character. It was the September afternoon of the fluvial procession.

This is how I described that event in a BM article that I wrote, “My Life With Ina” (BM 9/5/19):

“Ako an bahala diyan ki Manny!” A familiar voice came from behind the boat’s keel.

It was our close family friend and fellow Marian devotee Dr. Tony Zantua. We were in the same boat--literally. Doc Tony, from an illustrious family in Naga, was also an adviser of the New Era Labor Union who had chosen to practice medicine in the barrios. He was seated beside another Tony (Jordana). Doc Tony was confidence personified (later he pulled me aside and said that he did not know how to swim).

“Don’t worry, Manny,” he patted me on the shoulder, after I nervously balanced myself to sit right next to him. “Ina will not allow our boat to capsize, because if it did, every voyador will jump from their boats to save us.” He waved at the voyadores in the boats and in the pagoda, as he started telling me their names.

“You know them?”

“They are my patients. There’d be no one left to pull the pagoda, so Ina will not allow that.” There was always something reassuring in the way he described situations.

In those halcyon years, I’d always wondered why my parents were very fond of Doc. At first I knew him as the Dr. Zantua, then I addressed him as Doc Tony, and finally simply “Doc.” Everybody knew who Doc was. He would show up in the house anytime. Whenever my father would hold staff meetings with his policemen or hold veterans meetings in the house, Doc was always there. He was family.

When I asked my dad about this he told me that Doc’s father, Dr. Amando Zantua, was a World War II veteran who risked life and limb and family to give food, medicine, and shelter to his guerrilla unit during the war. In gratitude, my father made sure that Dr. Amando’s son Tony availed of the educational veterans benefits and all other benefits entitled to dependents.

After our boat ride later that year, Doc came to the house to say he would be leaving to practice medicine in the Island of Catanduanes.

I lost contact with him, until years later I found myself on a ferry boat with two of my former college dormmates, Brick and Sonny, to look into a possible lobster business in Catanduanes. And suddenly I thought of Doc. Of course! Didn’t he tell us he was moving to Catanduanes?

So I called my father in Manila if he knew how to get to Doc’s place. His answer was “I don’t have the exact address right now, but just ask anyone in Virac; they’ll know.”

The four-hour long ferry boat ride from the Port of Tabaco, Albay, to Virac was rough. It was one of those windy days in the open Pacific Ocean. But after several “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” we finally made it. Upon checking in at a local hotel in Virac we asked the person at the counter if he happened to know a certain Dr. Tony Zantua. His eyes widened at such an obvious question. So we asked how to get to his place.

“Just ask any tricycle driver; he’ll take you there.”

And Manoy Driver did just that--right at Doc’s door.

That evening, several years after he had left Naga, I finally met Doc again. We had a great time reminiscing. Just like the Naga years when Doc would just appear in our house looking for my dad and the “party” begins. No appointments, no calls.

We had a great dinner in his house that night. He had other guests, but he was the usual Doc Tony – always the life of the party.

We talked about everything, in fact everything under the sun, except our business plans with him. That’s his endearing brand of hospitality. We did that the next day, and that was the beginning of a lobster business venture with Doc in that beautiful Island of Catanduanes.

Being with Doc on my subsequent stays and trips to Catanduanes were the times of my life. Those were the times I really got to know him quite well.

A portion of his “official biography”: When he was born in Camaligan, Camarines Sur, everybody in the family was -- disappointed. They had been praying for a girl (four brothers had already preceded him), so when he was born, he disappointed everyone, including the yaya. In effect, they named the boy after the town’s Patron Saint, “so that there would be someone to look after the unfortunate creature.”

The boy turned out to gather the highest grades in school, not because of the delicious apples he brought daily to the teachers, but because this unusually bright boy was also cariñoso, which won the hearts of the Sisters of Charity at the Colegio de Santa Isabel.

And yet he was looked upon as a black sheep in the family partly because he shunned the social elites where his brothers circulated in and was more comfortable with the cargadores in the railroad station. So when his lola asked the family to offer someone to God, they all offered him. He was “it.”

And so he entered the San Jose Seminary. Upon the death of his lola, however, he “feigned sickness,” so was granted a “leave,” and decided to transfer to the Ateneo de Naga High School, leaving behind his priestly vocation. After all, he said, “many are called but few are frozen.”

The rest is a string of achievements too long to enumerate. For lack of space, suffice to say that he is listed in the Marquis WHO’S WHO IN THE WORLD (Macmillan Directory Division, Illinois, USA, 9th Ed. 1989-90) as one of the personalities in the world, along with world leaders and celebrities, “who have distinguished themselves through notable achievements in their fields.”

Meanwhile, he owned and managed a 30 bed hospital with his wife our “Manay” Paz, a BSN. Doc met the former Paz Lizaso (from a well known family in Catanduanes) while practicing medicine in the rural railroad towns of Camarines Sur.

Doc had a way with his patients in the province. He knew them all by heart, and he had a way of curing them in both body and mind. One time when I needed to talk to him, I was surprised when he told me to wait. When he came out of his office he told me that he just finished treating an old patient by performing the “santigwar” (a form of faith healing to drive away “bad spirits”). My guess was what he did was plain psychological, but whatever it was the patient came out of his office smiling and visibly cured.

Doc treated all his patients with dignity and respect. The less fortunate would come to him for treatment and he charged them nothing, even as they received the same personal/special treatment like everyone else. At other times I have witnessed poor patients pay him with live chicken, fish, or some farm product. Because they’d insist, he would accept them, but would give them fare money back to their homes.

He encouraged me to write and so I wrote the first newspaper article I ever wrote and published it in the Island Reporter, a weekly newspaper published by Doc. And so for the first time in my life I got into newspaper print because of “who you know.” Doc’s advice.

He lived a simple family life, but his influence was far and wide. Politicians, fishermen, military men, the clergy, the garbage collector, visiting cabinet secretaries, the cargadores, etc. would drop by his house for advice or for a simple, lively conversation.

He was very grounded and never took himself seriously. When you were within his radar screen you can’t be depressed very long. I discovered that deep inside he truly and sincerely loved people. Beneath that veneer of quick wit, irony, and sheer self confidence was a highly spiritual human being who loved God passionately and people deeply. Everybody loved him for his joie de vivre which was contagious.

Allow me an analogy: Flowers blooming in the forest spread their fragrance whether there is anyone there to appreciate them or not, and whoever you may be, you will be blessed by just being there because to be fragrant is a flower’s nature. Doc was love-filled and God-filled. To be loving was his nature.

This is just a tiny portion of my experiences with Doc. In time, my lobster business partner Brick had to pursue his law practice, while Sonny had to accept a job at the UN based in Italy. As for me, I decided to visit the US and ended up settling in the US because of a woman. But that’s another story.

But I never lost touch with Doc or any member of his wonderful family. I saw him again when I visited the Philippines in 1996. In 2001 I met him and his wife here in the US. He stayed with his son Omar who was resident physician at a hospital in NY. Even then, I insisted he stayed with my family if only for a couple of days, which he did. We had a great time, especially as we toured the sights in New York, capped by that memorable Ateneo de Naga (his alma mater) Alumni party in New Jersey.

When we parted we promised each other we’d see each other again.

“In two years.” We both promised.

Doc Tony passed away a couple of years later, on January 15, 2003.

But I kept my promise. By some proverbial twist of coincidence I saw him again, this time at his own wake and burial. You see, I left for the Philippines on January 17 hoping that I could make it to my father’s deathbed. My father died on January 17, two days after Doc Tony died. Two massive blows for me in two days.

I spoke with Doc’s son Omar if I could be one of the pallbearers, fully aware of its import as one of the ancient and important ceremonial roles at a funeral. My wish was granted. His whole family was present. I am sincerely proud of their achievements:

His children Ma. Cecilia is now an M.D. and runs the Dr. A. P. Zantua Memorial Hospital, the pioneer private hospital in Virac. Mary Jane, is a lawyer and presently Chief Prosecutor at the Province of Catanduanes. Omar Anthony is now an M.D. and a prominent physician in the US. Canada based businesswoman Ma. Paz holds a BSC degree in Business Management.

I grasped the bar of Doc’s casket and walked beside it from the funeral car to the gravesite. At the Manila Memorial Park in Sucat, Paranaque, Doc’s final resting place is just a stone’s throw away from the graves of Ninoy and Cory Aquino. While we bade him farewell, I remembered our September boat ride with Ina. As I guided the casket to the final resting place, it was my turn to tell him, “Doc, ako an bahala. I’ll make sure you will always be remembered.”

This my piece is a way of keeping that promise.

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