By Dom Galeon
Photos by Noel Pabalate
Video by Marella Gaspar
I first met Karlo Nograles when he was a newbie in Congress, almost 10 years ago now. Well, a newbie as congressman but not inexperienced when it comes to working in the hallowed halls of the country’s Batasan. Karlo’s background in public service started when he worked as chief of staff for his father, the late Prospero Nograles, who was the first speaker of the House to have come from Mindanao.
With a father who was an accomplished public servant and politician, you might say that a career in government was going to be natural for Karlo. Quite the contrary, in fact. “When I was young, I was resisting going into government,” he says. “That was not what was in my mind when I was younger. I wanted to be a priest. But that didn’t work out because priests can’t have families and I wanted a family, I wanted to have kids of my own.”
Karlo then ended up wanting to be a doctor, going to Philippine Science for high school, following in the footsteps of his older sister. His fear of blood and needles, which he says he has to this day, prevented him from pursuing a career in medicine. When time came for him to decide what course to take in college, he abandoned his plans of becoming a doctor, opting instead to take up Management Engineering.
“I was avoiding going into law school, being compared to my father, being under his shadow. There was really a resistance,” Karlo says. “Because I couldn’t be a doctor, I decided to just scale the corporate ladder. I finished Management Engineering and I ended up working for a multinational company.”
It was there that he felt something was missing, that being in corporate wasn’t what he was meant to do. So Karlo decided to finally go into law school, a choice that was not at all imposed by his father. “The thing about my dad is, as long as you do what you like, you enjoy it, and there’s sipag, you excel at what you’re doing, and obviously you have to be able to feed your family too, he let us be,” he explains. “He never pushed us, he didn’t program our lives. For him, it was about doing what makes you happy.”
After six years of being exposed to public service, as his dad’s chief of staff while also practicing law in Davao, Karlo decided to take up the challenge and assume the role his father was about to leave, as representative for the first district of Davao city. It was a decision that came, for Karlo, as a calling. “Watching my father do his work, not only in Davao but also in Congress, I was exposed to what needed to be done—and there’s a lot of work to be done in government,” he says.
Successfully finishing three consecutive terms as congressman, Karlo was ready to return to private life. His plan was to return to practicing law in a private firm but circumstances changed when President Rodrigo Duterte asked him to take on the role of Cabinet secretary.
Moving from the legislative to the executive wasn’t easy for Karlo. Although he has taken the transition in stride, adjustments had to be made. Despite having a busy schedule, practically always on call, even on weekends, the young Cabinet secretary manages to find time for what he considers to be the most important aspect of his life—his family, his wife Marga, and their kids Mateo, Massimo, and Nikka.
To understand how Karlo manages to balance a successful and busy career in public service and politics with being a family man, I spent the afternoon of June 12 in their cozy residence in Quezon City to chat with him about being a son and a father.
WHEN YOU FINALLY BECAME A FATHER, WHAT WAS THE FEELING LIKE?
When Mateo was born, I cried. I was there with Marga.
YOU WERE WITH HER IN THE DELIVERY ROOM? BUT AREN’T YOU AFRAID OF BLOOD?
That’s why I was always behind her! (laughs) But you see, fear of blood is no hindrance or obstacle to being there, to seeing your child being born—but obviously behind her, with a curtain, not looking down, and just always looking straight. (laughs).
When Mateo was born, it was surreal. It’s really a miracle. In my line of work, I’ve helped so many pregnant mothers. But it’s really different when it’s your own child. And the experience was different for each of my kids, of course. I was also there when Massimo and Nikka were being born, and each moment was special.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOU HAVE TIME FOR YOUR FAMILY?
Every opportunity you get, you spend it with them. Every single opportunity you have to come home early, you come home early, instead of going out. If you have a free weekend, spend it with your family. When you have long weekends, maybe bring your family out. It’s the quality of time spent—and this is something I learned from my father—it’s not the quantity. Of course quantity is good but let’s be realistic. In this world and in the work that I do, it’s hard to make sure that there’s quantity. So babawi ka sa quality. Every opportunity, if you have free time, instead of wasting it elsewhere, use it for family time.
Naabutan pa natin yung pay phones. (laughs) But now, technology—a phone call, a Viber call or WhatsApp, or video through FaceTime—has made it easy to catch up with family. FaceTime is very important nowadays. It’s such a blessing to have!
SPEAKING OF THINGS YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR FATHER, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE GREATEST LESSON HE LEFT YOU WITH?
I learned a great many things from him, either with him telling me or with me watching him. My dad was more than just a father to me. He was my barkada. He made sure that he and I were close that way.
My father’s life was a roller-coaster. It wasn’t all wins, he had losses—big losses. The most important lesson I learned from him is this: Inevitably, in life, you are going to stumble and fall. But it’s not the number of times you fall, it’s how you pick yourself up after you fall. It’s a cliché, but it happens to the best of us. The character of a person is defined by how he picks himself up.
Another lesson is don’t be afraid to commit mistakes. You are bound to commit mistakes. It’s part of life. You’ll be faced with choices and you won’t be making the right decisions every time. But you do the best you can. When you make a mistake, you learn from it. You move on, you move forward. There really isn’t any other way. In this world, with my line of work, if you’re afraid to commit mistakes, you won’t be daring enough and you won’t move forward. If you fall, pick yourself up, dust yourself, and just move on.
WHAT ABOUT AS A FATHER- WHAT WAS THE GREATEST LESSON YOU LEARNED FROM HIM?
What’s most important in this world is relationship—your relationship with your wife, with your children, their relationship with you. It’s the essence of living, I suppose. More than material success, family is most important. That’s what I want my family, my kids to know: At the end of the day, family comes first. I’m here for them, for my kids. As parents we are here to love them, to care for them, to cherish them. You really only have a limited amount of time, which is something I learned because my father passed away just recently. It’s really important to make the most of the time that you have. I want my kids to know that family comes first.
ANY ADVICE YOU WANT TO SHARE WITH ALL THE DADS OUT THERE?
To dads: Be your children’s best friend. That’s very important nowadays. The last thing you want to happen between you and your children is that you enter into miscommunication. I know you have to play the role of a parent, but it’s also important for you to play the role of a good friend. A best friend is somebody he can confide in, tell you his secrets—maybe not all secrets. Your children know that they could run to you for help. In a relationship between any parent and child, there has to be that trust, that essence of them knowing that, no matter what happens, you are there for them and that you will understand. It’s really a balance, you have to play all these roles. But your kids should know that they can run to you, that they can confide in you, that they can trust you. I think that’s very important.