It is difficult to believe that someone whom you have known, admired, respected and loved through your long Rotary life, will be there no more for you to listen to, even though he may have lived more than half way across the world in California. Difficult, because whenever you thought of Mat Caparas, you visualised a sprightly, humorous, smiling man, whose words always dripped with simple but uncommon wisdom.
But frankly, I am not really the best person to write about Mat Caparas. It was our PRIP Raja Saboo who had been his closest colleague and friend and a co-director on the RI Board. But I have always admired Mat, as a leader ahead of his times, with his vision and his depth of thought.
He was born Mateo Armando Tenao — in short, MAT — Caparas in December 1923, in Cuyapo in the Philippines, had his schooling in Bulacan, and graduated in 1950. As a practising lawyer, like his father, he transferred his practice to Manila in 1980, after he had served as a district governor in District 980. Manila was, of course, Asia’s first Rotary Club, chartered in 1919, and there, he rose rapidly in Rotary, first to the post of RI Director and then, RI President in 1986–87, the only Filipino ever to be in that exalted position. But even as he served Rotary, he continued to serve his country too, as Chair of President Cory Aquino’s Committee on Commitment of Good Governance.
Mat was a person who would never hesitate to think afresh. At our Udaipur Rotary Institute in 1984, he heard several speakers like late Justice B P Beri, late PDG B B Bhargava, PDG Madhav Chaudhuri and others, speak of the need to take Rotary to the villages, and carry there the concepts of self-help and service. Those speakers helped Mat, present at that Institute as RI Director, to conceptualise the Rotary Village Corps (RVC). An RI Committee was then set up to explore the possibilities, and on their recommendation, the RI Board accepted the plan and the Rotary Village Corps was born. Still later, it was further developed to include big metropolitan cities too, as the Rotary Community Corps (RCC), which still serves communities across the world.
As RI President, Mat had a very simple theme for the year — Rotary Brings Hope — simple, yes, but one of the most meaningful and lasting of Rotary themes ever.
Apart from starting RVCs, it was in his year as president that RI admitted its first woman member, after a CoL decision to do so in 1985 in Singapore. And again, it was Mat who kicked off Rotary’s campaign against polio in the Philippines and initiated Rotary’s first efforts to control the spread of polio by our plan to raise $120 million in 1986. The idea was to raise the amount from our members worldwide; they were asked to contribute for the first time ever to a common, international cause. I remember doing my bit to raise the funds in India under the guidance of late PRID Manchanda, late PRID Sudarshan Agarwal, PRID Sushil Gupta and Lalit Mehra. Of course, its well-known that Rotary ended up finally collecting more than $240 million for the cause. But that’s another story.
After Mat and his wife Nita settled in California, Mat would still be seen at all Rotary conventions and at International Assemblies at San Diego, conferring with the other Past RI Presidents, and I was always amazed at the sharp and simple insights he would bring in at these discussions. And at home in California, he was always a gracious host to his numerous admirers, among them, many visiting Indians too. And at the conventions, you would find him chatting amicably, surrounded by his fans at the House of Friendship.
Mat passed away at his home in San Francisco on July 15 at the age of 96, leaving desolate his family and thousands of his friends across the world.
Let me end this piece as an ardent admirer of Mat with a story to highlight his self-deprecating sense of humour. At the Madras Rotary Institute in 1989, convened by late Director Sudarshan Agarwal, President Mat was an invitee and he made a wonderful, moving speech, sharing many thoughts on Rotary and his life and wound it up with the following story.
Once a club in the Philippines had invited a speaker who went on and on and on, boring every one to death. Suddenly, a man wielding a long and sharp knife, jumped on to the stage and moved towards the lectern. The alarmed speaker said: ‘Sir, Sir, please don’t do anything violent. I’m done. I’m finished.’ The intruder told him: ‘No, No. Go on please, as long as you want. I am here looking for the man who invited you to speak today!’
And then as the audience applauded, Mat added: before you go looking for Director Sudarshan, let me stop here.
May he rest in peace, forever.
The writer is a past RI President