Dr. Ben Ileto was an anesthesiologist; his wife, Lourdes Lim Ileto, is a medical technician. They could very well have lived comfortably and quietly by themselves, far from the problems and issues within the Filipino American community in New York.
But instead, Doc Ileto and Tita Lou chose to spend their time, expertise, and effort to be of service to their fellow Filipinos in America.
It has been a year since Doc Ileto passed away. And perhaps the best way to commemorate the first anniversary of his death is to celebrate his life.
I first met Dr. Ileto while we were waiting for the office-warming ceremony to start at the then-new office of the Philippine Forum, near the Queens Public Library in Elmhurst, New York. That meeting led to several years of working together with the Philippine Forum. Doc Ileto was its long-time president, while I served on and off in many capacities – editor of Sanlahi, publications director, program director, development officer, grant writer, director of the Carlos Bulosan Heritage Center, etc.
Through all those years, I have come to know Doc as a great champion and advocate of the Filipino American community. He was an active leader in many Filipino American organizations and health and medical-related programs, and non-profits. With the Philippine Forum, Doc Ileto was a steadying and warm presence.
What was truly admirable about Doc Ileto was that he was a community leader, not just in public; he was genuinely concerned about helping people away from the limelight, without fanfare and publicity. I have seen how Doc Ileto chatted with and offered advice and help to the Philippine Forum members. They are mostly low-income Filipinos in the U.S. – domestic workers, caregivers, babysitters, house cleaners, workers in factories, restaurants, and retail, and yes, even undocumented fellowmen.
I, too, was on the receiving end of Doc Ileto’s generosity.
When Doc learned that we (Cris, our two daughters, and I) have decided to apply for green cards around 2007, he understood that the filing fees were somewhat prohibitive for newly arrived immigrants like us. He offered to lend us the money for the filing fees under very friendly terms.
He would, from time to time, express his concern for our well-being. I remember a couple of times when he advised Cris on whether to accept invitations from non-profit organizations, asking her to partner with them on immigration-related programs. As an immigration lawyer, Cris regularly gets invites and feelers from non-profits working with immigrant groups. Doc definitely knew the terrain, having been around the community for a long time, and we indeed valued his wise counsel.
There were two Philippine Forum programs that I know were close to Doc’s heart: our health and youth programs. He enjoyed leading our Oplan Kalusugan program. He and Tita Lou were mainstays of the many health screening and free clinic events launched by the Philippine Forum under the Oplan Kalusugan banner. Oplan Kalusugan was the backbone program that led to the formation of the New York University-led Kalusugan Coalition.
Doc also seemed to be happy being with young people; he appreciated the privilege of helping guide our youth members to become future leaders. I remember Doc Ileto making the more than two-hour drive from Long Island, New York, to the Poconos in Pennsylvania to attend the leadership training seminar we had for the leaders and members of the Philippine Forum-Youth. Doc enjoyed every moment he was there, exchanging jokes with them, and our young leaders visibly enjoyed chatting with him.
Doc Ileto’s calm leadership was also on display during one tumultuous period in the Philippine Forum history. During the Independence Day Parade in 2005, the Philippine Forum delegation was thrown out of the parade, escorted out by NYPD cops at the parade organizers’ instruction.
The Forum delegation went to the parade to express its protest over what it considered a tone-deaf action by the Philippine Consulate General in New York.
A 2005 statement of the Philippine Forum read:
“All we wanted was to seek an explanation from Consul General Cecilia Rebong about newspaper reports of her renting a $10,000-a-month condominium at the posh Trump Tower on First Avenue in Manhattan. All we wanted was to express our displeasure with what we consider lavish spending, especially when viewed in light of the worsening economic crisis in the Philippines. All we wanted was to exercise our right to free expression, which is guaranteed under both the Philippine and U.S. Constitutions.”
The Forum delegation and the rest of the officers and members were expectedly livid and gearing for aggressive actions. Doc Ileto, however, sought a more level-headed way to address the issue. He organized a town hall meeting with the Consulate. The consul who attended the meeting promised to bring up the $10,000-a-month condo with the Con-Gen and come back for a second meeting.
We had no idea whether the consul sent to meet with us actually brought up the Con Gen issue, and we are still waiting for the second meeting to happen. But we learned something from that event; that Doc Ileto was a problem-solver and that he got our collective backs.
Rest in peace, Doc. You were the torchbearer during your time. It is now our turn, and the next generations’, to carry the flame and the light forward.
Salamat. Maraming salamat sa maraming taon ng paglilingkod sa ating mga kababayan. Hindi ka namin malilimutan.