The night ended with a standing ovation for Philippine Daily Inquirer editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, honoring the journalist who devoted her life to the pursuit of truth for a better Philippines and had a heart big enough to love so many.
President Aquino-flanked by Magsanoc's husband, Carlitos Magsanoc, and daughter, Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala-led the crowd in applauding his "Tita Letty" at the close of her wake at Heritage Park in Taguig City on Tuesday night.
Mr. Aquino said he called Magsanoc "tita" (aunt) because she was not only close to his mother but also because it was an honorific "we attach to the names of the people we hold in esteem."
The President did not hold back, pouring out his love, respect and admiration for Magsanoc, who, along with other women journalists during martial law, he said, "were seemingly braver than the men in standing up to the dictatorship."
"The high regard I had for her, combined with her lifelong profession, made it a little challenging to interact with her. In fact, I can probably count the number of times I was able to truly let what's left of my hair down and speak more or less freely around her," he said.
"Tita Letty, after all, was first and foremost a journalist: She had a keen eye for a story, and that sixth sense that all exemplary journalists possess. I would be remiss if I failed to pay tribute to that aspect of her life tonight, particularly because it is so intertwined with the history of our country and the life of our family," Mr. Aquino said
While at Mass hours before he learned Magsanoc had died, the President said he was in a reflective mood and thought of all the loved ones he had lost this year: his aunt, Passy Cojuangco-Teopaco; uncle Agapito "Butz" Aquino, and Bong Fuyonan, his security aide who succumbed to cancer.
"You can imagine my shock when, during our 'noche buena,' the news came that Tita Letty had passed away," Mr. Aquino said.
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle heaped praises on Magsanoc in his homily during the Mass that he concelebrated earlier at the park with Fathers Jerry Orbos and Reynaldo Jimenez.
Tagle called Magsanoc one of the "great storytellers" of the Philippines.
"Those spreading gossip are increasing in number, while those who tell the real story are getting fewer and fewer," Tagle said.
"We are thankful that during our lifetime we were able to see great storytellers, including Letty. We are also thankful that during that time we became part of their stories, with the story of our lives having also been influenced by their storytelling."
Tagle said it was difficult to tell a story with the light of love.
"It is dangerous, and maybe that's why only a few are true storytellers."
To be a good storyteller is to tread on dangerous ground "for many stories are being suppressed," Tagle said.
"Many stories are forbidden. So a good storyteller gives voice to the voiceless. We thank God for Letty and we challenge every Filipino to live in solidarity, especially with the poor. Live in love and truth. Be a good storyteller and, deeper than that, be a good story of a good and honourable Filipino," he said.
In his eulogy, President Aquino said he looked up to Magsanoc as an "institution."
"And with institutions, you tend to forget that they are also people, with a beginning and an end. Even if I knew she had a chronic condition, there was the belief that, like every other instance of her having an illness, she would bounce back-livelier and more feisty than ever. There was a period of disbelief, tinged with sadness for the passing of such an icon and friend," he said.
The Inquirer learned that the President's eulogy for Magsanoc underwent at least three revisions, with the final version that he delivered finished around 9 p.m., two hours before he arrived at the sprawling garden of the Aerternum Chapel at Heritage Park.
His devotion to Magsanoc was evident in his following the family's plan for the last night of her wake, not imposing his own schedule and listening to all the other eulogies that came before and after his.
It was a necrological service that was as classy and elegant as the woman being celebrated.
The sharing of memories was accentuated with jazz performances by singer Richard Merk and a duet with his mother, Asia's Queen of Jazz, Annie Brazil.
The mother-and-son tandem was Magsanoc's favourite.
Folk rock singer Noel Cabangon also sang "Ang Buhay Nga Naman" and "Sa Ugoy ng Duyan," which drew silent tears from the crowd.
But before singing, Cabangon made the audience laugh with his Magsanoc moment.
At one Inquirer Read-Along session, he said Magsanoc saw him and said to him: "You, you-you sing, ha!"
"Of course, all I could say was 'Yes, Ma'am!'" Cabangon said before strumming his guitar.
President Aquino stayed well into the night.
Earlier, as he began his eulogy-with the gold urn containing Magsanoc's ashes not far away from him-Mr. Aquino confessed he was "a little bit tense."
"Whenever it involves Tita Letty, I feel I am before a very stern taskmaster; we're talking about an icon," Mr. Aquino said.
That it was another journalism icon, Cheche Lazaro, who emceed the necrological service added to his anxiety, the President said.
"I think I have two mentors and two taskmasters that I have to do my best for tonight," he quipped.
Mr. Aquino said what snapped him out of his depression upon learning that Magsanoc died on Christmas Eve was his recollection of fond memories of her.
"If you would ask me to describe her, the image of the famed German nuns at St. Scholastica or the Irish priests at Ateneo always comes to mind. I am sure all of us have had mentors and teachers we considered terrors. You know, I guess, what I mean, Tita Letty could give you the kind of look that would turn the blood in your veins to ice: at once direct, intimidating, and soul-searching. Every time she looked at me like that, I couldn't help but think that a major sermon was in the offing," he said.
"Thankfully, that never happened. At some point, she would always break out either with a smile or a very infectious laughter. Of course, given the intensity of her signature look, it always took me a few seconds to realise that she was finally smiling-at which point I could finally relax and return the gesture," he said.
Heart of gold
"For Tita Letty's truest and deepest nature was of a nurturer with a heart of gold-a nurturer who was still tough precisely because she expected you to meet the challenge of her very high expectations," the President said.
Mr. Aquino made it clear that Magsanoc, or the rest of the Inquirer for that matter, did not have an "unlimited access" to him as a news source, even if he had interacted with Magsanoc more than any other journalist in his six-year administration.
"Tita Letty was conscious that she represented the Fourth Estate-and I, the government and the nation's interests. That kind of knowledge breeds tension in both parties: She, as a journalist, was always out for a scoop, and also always aware that friendliness must never become partisanship," the President said.
"On my part, as President, I am duty-bound not to play favorites with the press, and that furthermore, even as I have the duty to keep the public well and truly informed, I also have an obligation to ensure that this information is situated in its proper context," he added.
Limits of relationship
The President emphasised that there was a clear demarcation between the personal and professional sides of his relationship with Magsanoc.
But he said: "I can tell all of you: Tita Letty was always so human that it fostered respect, trust and, thus, closeness."
The President admitted that in his conversations with Magsanoc, he was "guarded" while she was "probing" but the dynamic did not foster conflict.
"This, I can attribute to her consummate professionalism and, of course, her more nurturing side," he said.
As a journalist, the President noted, Magsanoc always wanted to do what was "right by the Filipino people" and ever so clearly "dedicated her entire life to the Philippines and its people."
Magsanoc was also one who always imparted lessons, whether in the newsroom or in an informal setting, he said.
The President said that in fact, he was among the "privileged few" to learn from Magsanoc that there was more than one verse of the song "You Are My Sunshine."
They even witnessed "Tita Letty singing all four verses of the song after the state banquet for President Francois Hollande of France," the President said.
It seemed that Mr. Aquino had hoped for more times like this with Magsanoc, revealing that he had thought "June 30, 2016, would allow for a shift" in his relationship with the Inquirer's top editor.
"So that I would no longer have to be on my guard, and she would no longer need to call me Mr. President."
Living the Inquirer motto
Father Orbos, a columnist for the Inquirer, said that to her very last breath, Magsanoc embodied the newspaper's motto-balanced news, fearless views.
"She lived that motto as a person. [She was] very popular but driven; very knowledgeable but humble; very professional but very personal," he said.
For emcee Lazaro, Magsanoc remained an "icon" of Philippine journalism "for what she stood for, what she fought for and what she represented in the life of a journalist."
Knowing Magsanoc as someone who shunned awards and recognition, Lazaro said the tribute held in her honour was a "revenge of gratitude" of the people who wanted "to speak of her value as a person." With a report from Jovic Yee