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‘Lolo Benny’

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 09, 2021 6:00 am

Rustan’s chairman Nedy Tantoco once told me that her late mother, the former Glecy Rustia, was the “marketing wiz,” while her father Benny, who passed away at 1:06 a.m. last July 6 at the age of 100, was the supportive husband who made sure business was humming.

“My mother would not have been the success that she was without my dad, who took care of the back office — accounting, warehousing, security. Somebody had to do that,” Nedy said.

“She and my father started out in the living room of their house, selling merchandise that my mother bought abroad. They set up a small gift shop on San Marcelino street, which was actually their living room.”

Nedy told me one of the things she is most proud of is how she and her siblings (only brother Rico and sisters Menchu Lopez, Marilou Pineda, Marilen Tantoco, and Maritess Enriquez) have preserved the legacy of their mother, and now, their father.

Former Ambassador to the Vatican Bienvenido ‘Benny’ Tantoco Sr., who smiled at people with both his lips and his eyes, was fondly called ‘Lolo Benny’ even by those not related to him.

“I believe she would have been proud of what her family has accomplished, and that makes me proud as well.”

Former Ambassador to the Vatican Bienvenido “Benny” Tantoco Sr., who smiled at people with both his lips and his eyes, was fondly called “Lolo Benny” even by those not related to him.

Six years ago, I was able to personally interview Lolo Benny.

‘Lolo Benny’ with daughter, Rustan’s chairman Nedy Tantoco, when Santa visited Rustan’s four years ago.

Amidst the various Christmas settings at the Rustan’s Department Store on Ayala Avenue he stood, dapper as always.

The country’s former envoy to the Vatican and founder of the Rustan’s Group of Companies (RGOC) walked briskly around the store and his eyes lit up every time his children and grandchildren greeted him. When I had the chance, I asked him his Christmas wish.

Without a second thought, without further prodding, he replied, “I already have so much. I have nothing more to wish for.”

Indeed Benny Tantoco had been blessed not only with years in his life, but life in his years. He started working at age 16 as a movie house usher after his father passed away, sometimes taking on 15-hour shifts. He worked for his uncle Don Ernesto Rufino while pursuing his studies at Jose Rizal University. Though he was eventually promoted, he quit his job to concentrate on the business he started with his wife Glecy.

He told PeopleAsia magazine, “My uncle’s reaction was an interesting part of the beginnings of Rustan’s because he said to me: ‘Aren’t you taking a big risk in giving up a good-paying job for an enterprise that may not last?’ I agreed with him that it was a risk, but a risk I had to take. He then gave me his complete blessings, and even kept my job vacant for a long time in case things didn’t work out and I had to return.”

 Three Bienvenidos: Rico, Benny and Donnie Tantoco when the Tantoco patriarch received the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award from PeopleAsia in 2015.

Prior to becoming the Philippines’ “father of luxury retail” and chairman emeritus of RGOC, he was simply Benny, a smart and industrious lad from Bulacan who had big dreams.

“I wanted to travel around the world, and see different places, make lots of friends, experience many places, and eat different kinds of food,” he shared with a charming smile, during his exclusive interview with Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza for PeopleAsia in 2014.

 Ambassador Tantoco receives PeopleAsia’s Lifetime Achievement Award from Sen. Grace Poe, PeopleAsia associate publisher and president Kevin Belmonte (left), and vice chairman and Philippine Star president/CEO Miguel Belmonte.

At the time approaching his 94th birthday, the Rustan’s patriarch also revealed that he had intended on “taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, (exploring) South America, and visiting cities such as Budapest.”

There were no other wishes Lolo Benny hoped to fulfill back then. “Wala na. Ninety-three na ako. Matanda na ako. Malapit na isang daang taon na ako (I cannot wish for more, I’m nearing a hundred years old),” he also said.

I don’t know if he was able to take the pilgrimage, but he did complete his journey to 100 years, something he looked forward to.

Daddy Frank

July 6 is also the day my own father Frank Mayor went to heaven. Memories of that day 11 years ago —  the sadness of which was not cushioned by the fact that we knew it was inevitable — still bring fresh tears to my eyes.

Dad had late-stage cancer of the pancreas. My mother Sonia was told by the nurses that my dad’s end was near about two days before July 6. She normally watched over him during the day, but went home at night, as is the norm in most US hospitals. Dad was confined at a hospital in Fountain Valley, California.

 My late dad, Frank Loudon Mayor.

But after that call, she never left his side, obtaining permission to sleep in the hospital room.

My three sisters, all of whom were in the US then, told me the painful truth. I was devastated, but resigned. I thought that it would be just a matter of hours. Throughout the almost sleepless night that followed, I expected that dreaded call to pierce the quiet of the night.

But I woke up to the news that, miraculously, I still had a father. Dad was holding on. So like him. I made a split-second decision. I was going to fly to LA that same day. I might still be able to whisper my last goodbyes to Daddy’s ears, not to a mobile phone.

Before boarding, I called up my sister Valerie one more time. She said, “Dad is waiting for you.” His vitals were stable.

It was a straight, smooth flight on Philippine Airlines. The minute the plane landed, I turned on my phone and called up Val, but it wasn’t her voice at the other end of the line. It was Mom’s.

“Your dad is gone,” she said tearfully, but clearly. Then a flood of text messages came in, messages of condolence.

While I was midway over the Pacific Ocean, Dad breathed his last.

I experienced kindness on such a cruel day. The immigration officers, seeing the truth in my tearful eyes, compassionately let me go first in line. You see, I wanted to reach Dad before they took him away from his hospital room — forever.

I had one piece of carry-on luggage and, in my confusion, I checked it in. Apparently, it was considered fragile and did appear on the conveyor belt right away. The clock was ticking. There was nothing in that bag that I couldn’t live without. So I told the person in charge that I would just claim it the next day.

As I was exiting, someone called out from afar, “Ma’am, Ma’am, we have your luggage!”

My Uncle Jun Reyes and my parents’ neighbor David were waiting to whisk me to the hospital.

I got to Dad’s hospital room in time to kiss his still warm forehead. It was a farewell, and it was a greeting. A week later, he would have turned 78.

Photo from PeopleAsia