By AA PATAWARAN
At a celebration organized by Rustan’s Commercial Corporation last Monday for Amb. Bienvenido Tantoco Sr.’s 98th birthday, his eldest grandchild, Donnie Tantoco, said in an impromptu speech, “Cardinal Tagle said yesterday, ‘Let’s follow a humble leader.’ We have a humble leader present in our lives today. He is right in front of us. And that is Ambassador Tantoco. So I encourage everyone to study him. Let’s allow him to teach us. In our own ways, let us try to emulate him. I truly believe that, if we do, we will continue to be blessed, and Rustan’s will live for a very, very long time.”
Other than the management and staff of Rustan’s, which has since become a conglomerate composed of many subsidiaries addressing specific niches in the retail sector, the Filipino people has a lot to thank Amb. Tantoco for, and to salute him for such a long life lived in dedication to the vision of “fulfilling the aspirations of society.”
Personally, Rustan’s to me has since my childhood been a well of possibilities manifest in beautiful objects I could own, if I chose. In those days I was a young boy it was the live, 3D version of a magazine, and tagging along with an aunt who went to shop there often was, to me, the ultimate treat, even if all I could ever do was gawk at the objects, handle them (with care, despite my aunt’s protestations that “if you break anything, you’ll pay for it”), and imagining a future surrounded by such beauty. Come to think of it, when I was a boy, Rustan’s was not so much a place to shop as it was a place to dream, especially as in those days Rustan’s wasn’t as big as it is now and it wasn’t the place to buy a boy’s shirt or shoes and the stuff my parents thought were all I needed.
With his late wife Gliceria, Amb. Tantoco founded Rustan’s in 1951. A portmanteau coined out of the first syllables of his wife’s maiden name Rustia and his surname, even then, it was a product of desire, the idea prompted by the couple’s many travels and their desire to bring home what they had found. They started it in the living room of their home on San Marcelino Street in Ermita, where friends would gather to get a piece of the couple’s many discoveries from around the world.
Now, Amb. Tantoco is 98 years old yet, to this day, he looks forward more than back, especially now that his business legacy, of which he remains chairman emeritus, as well as his family, has become so huge, his family having grown into so many branches across four generations.
Amb. Tantoco wore many hats. The father of luxury retailing in the Philippines, he was also the Philippine envoy to the Vatican in the mid-‘80s. He is a devotee of the Divine Mercy, a knight of St. Gregory, a philanthropist, and the inspiration for many who work for the Rustan’s Group of Companies. Over the years, as I worked in magazines and newspapers that dealt with fashion, lifestyle, and luxury, I’ve become close to many members of his family. With the Tantoco patriarch, who, I’ve had only the privilege of a few close encounters, including a lunch two years ago at which I sat right beside him when, having found out I was from The Manila Bulletin, he said to me, “Oh the late Don Emilio Yap was a neighbor. His wife had very good taste and often came to the house when we had new things in store.”
Of all his roles, it was that of family man that Amb. Tantoco truly cherished. “He’s our uniter,” said his grandchildren and great grandchildren at his recent birthday party, who organized themselves into the Tantoco Dance Squad and later called themselves the Benny Boppers.
At this party, it was revealed that Amb. Tantoco was also a tango champion. When he was a student, his guidance counselor gave him two choices for his extra-curricular activities: Either he joined the boxing team or he joined the dance squad. In the very macho culture that he grew up in, his choice was a surprise. “I chose dancer,” he said. As expected all his male friends started to tease him, but in the end, he had the last laugh because, as he told Donnie, “You know what, I chose dance and I ended up having a lot more girlfriends than the boxers.”
To a dancer, every moment, every movement is a celebration of life. “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” Wasn’t it the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche who said that? With his dancer’s spirit, Amb. Tantoco at 98 is still celebrating life, not a day wasted. Like a dancer on stage, he seizes every opportunity to share something—a lesson, a memory, a joke, an advice—with anyone around him, especially his family.
“Now that he has turned 98 years old I enjoy being with my dad in the real sense of the word,” says his daughter Nedy Tantoco. “When I spend time with him I really make the effort to sit beside him, hold his hand, talk to him, explain everything that goes on around him when he asks me. I love to see him becoming fully aware of what’s going on and what people are saying. At his age he loves to be part of the conversation. He loves to participate. And when he does, I am truly happy.”
“When Mom died, I became dad’s constant companion,” says another daughter, Maritess Tantoco Enriquez, his youngest. “I was his travel buddy. He loved to travel. Renato [Enriquez, her husband] and I were lucky enough to see the world because of his desire to discover new places and most especially his love for the arts. We would spend months in New Jersey, as he bought season’s tickets to the opera, the ballet, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. We would even attend the Summer Outdoor Opera in Verona. All these I consider an opportunity of a lifetime and I feel so privileged that he exposed us to culture.”
To yet another daughter, Menchu Tantoco Lopez, Amb. Tantoco is everything. “I don’t think I can find just one word to describe him,” she says. “I know I am very blessed to have him as my father. I still remember when he used to give me my milk, to feed me and take good care of me when I was small. I am always so very proud when I am told I look like him. I have one eye smaller just like he does. I learned from him to put my family ahead of everything else.”
His grandchildren have nothing but fond words for him. “The best thing I learned from my Lolo Benny was to always treat your people fairly and well,” says Michael Tantoco Huang. “I love being around my lolo because he is really funny and he always makes sure everyone around him is taken care of. He always thinks of everyone else.”
To Anton Huang, Amb. Tantoco is an industrious and kind hearted individual. “Lolo Benny has always been— and continues to be—the heart and soul of the family,” he says. “Celebrating his 98th is indeed a blessing for all of us.”