Celebrating life with Tony Modena

Tony Modena, one of my journalism mentors, would have given me a tongue-lashing for not getting the story right under my nose. I got scooped. In newspapering, that’s a crime.

I didn’t know that Tony was sick. I talked with him last December by phone and we even planned of getting together with Yvonne Chua and Chit Estela, former Malaya editors who are now UP professors, before he went back to Israel. He never mentioned he was battling cancer of the lungs.

I was shocked last Saturday afternoon when I got a text from Charity (Mrs. Modena): “We, his family, thank you for sending Tony off with prayers. He passed away today.”

I will miss Tony Modena, his rambunctiousness, his irreverence.

Tony is known to many as the “undiplomatic” diplomat who, as ambassador to Israel, blasted at Israeli authorities likening the maltreatment of Filipino workers to how the “German Nazis behaved toward the Jews.”

That’s Tony. He was not the traditional diplomat who would pretend indifference when Filipinos are insulted. Tony knows that as the Philippine ambassador, his job is to protect Philippine interests and Filipino nationals in that country. If that meant calling a spade a spade, he’ll do that.

I have many fond memories of Tony as my editor when I was covering the foreign affairs and science beats.

I did a three-part series on Vietnam on my visit to that country in 1984, when it was still recovering from almost two decades of war with the United States. Vietnam was not yet the favorite tourist destination and emerging economy that it is now.

After going over my report, he returned it to me with a reprimand: “Don’t give me these b.s. propaganda that the officials gave you. Tell your readers about what you saw.”

I did as told. I discarded the official claim of factory outputs and wrote about the barren farmlands poisoned by Agent Orange courtesy of the US, the coils of barbed wire in the middle of rice fields that used to separate life from death for many Vietnamese, malnourished Amerasian kids peddling food on the streets. It turned out to be one of my favorite articles.

As harsh as he could be with his critique, he could also be sweet. I once walked out crying when I couldn’t stand anymore his scoldings while we were doing the science page. The next day, there were red roses for me from Tony.

I had always been impressed with Tony’s intellect. When he was preparing to join the foreign service, I would hear him utter French expressions and I thought he spoke French.

From Vietnam, I brought as pasalubong for my officemates the English translation of Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary. For Tony and another editor, Ester Dipasupil, who studied in Sorbonne University, I got the original French version.

Tony asked if I could give him the English version. I told him, “I precisely got for you the French version because you are one of the two people here in Malaya who speak French.” He confessed, “You overestimate me. I don’t speak French yet.”

I had to give him my copy. I should have given him back his French version when he got assigned in Paris.

When my friends and I went on a Eurail tour in 1994, Tony patiently sat down with us and helped plan our itinerary, giving us tips like how to save on hotel expenses (take the midnight train to your next destination), where to get the best apple struddle in Berlin (we couldn’t find the restaurant), etc. etc.

Typically Tony Modena, his tips went something like, “Don’t miss going to Montmarte so you can boast ‘I walked the street where Pablo Picasso and Tony Modena once walked’.”

When I talked with Charity yesterday, she said, “if you have pictures of Tony, please bring them. I’d like his wake to be a celebration of life.”

tony-modena2.JPGI went through my files and I got this photo of Tony with President Fidel Ramos when the latter made the media rounds right after his election in 1992. That’s the way I would like to remember Tony.

Tony’s remains lies in state at the Funeraria Paz on Araneta Avenue. Cremation will be on Saturday.

February 19, 2007 1:00 am   Posted in: Malaya

23 Responses

  1. Nick - February 19, 2007 2:18 am

    Ellen, my deepest condolence to you. It’s always hard to lose a mentor, someone that you’ve looked up to for years.

    I celebrate Tony’s life, and you should celebrate the moments that you had with him as well.

    A teacher may pass, but the teachings will remain.

  2. Philippine Vigil - February 19, 2007 2:55 am

    My condolences, Ellen.

    I met Tony Modena too on a few occasions during his stint in Paris; quite a character – I believe he had his heart in the right place.

  3. ystakei - February 19, 2007 4:13 am

    Yup, I read about his death in Inquirer yesterday. Claro Cristobal, spokesperson of the DFA, made the announcement about funeral arrangements. I never met him, but I have heard about him from friends in the media.

    It is not always that I meet good journalists over there as a matter of fact, but I do remember them when I meet them, and treasure their wisdom worth remembering.

    May he rest in peace.

  4. chi - February 19, 2007 5:32 am

    My deepest sympathy for the passing of Tony Modena. A teacher is never forgotten, especially when the student turned out eminently good.

  5. ystakei - February 19, 2007 6:52 am

    Ellen: Tony is known to many as the “undiplomatic” diplomat who, as ambassador to Israel, blasted at Israeli authorities likening the maltreatment of Filipino workers to how the “German Nazis behaved toward the Jews.”


    I like his spirit, Ellen—not compromise what one believes in for what others may think right as when Filipinos would turn their other cheek to be slapped by those who treat them so lowly for fear of losing their job and for the love of money. Like Tony Modena, I wouldn’t if I know I am right.

    He will surely be missed. Sayang, matapang pa naman! But God wants him home, I guess!

  6. Mrivera - February 19, 2007 2:16 pm

    sayang talaga itong si ambassador tony modena. bata pa upang matapos kaagad ang maganda niyang nasimulan, subalit maaaring may purpose ang nasa itaas kung bakit siya kinuha kaagad. marahil, ang isa dito ay upang hindi siya “madungisan” sa pakikihalubilo sa mga ganid sa malakanyang.

  7. BLACK KNIGHT - February 19, 2007 5:36 pm


    Condolence..I don’t know the guy but knowing that he died at a young age of 58 years old, I could conclude that he did not take care of his health. I heard from a friend that he was a “chain smoker”. Well, that explains everything.

    May he rest in Peace!

  8. ystakei - February 19, 2007 8:33 pm

    Mrivera: ang isa dito ay upang hindi siya “madungisan” sa pakikihalubilo sa mga ganid sa malakanyang.

    Sinabi mo pa, Magno. Inililigtas siya ng Panginoon! Surely, he must have lived his life to the fullest even at a young age. Tignan mo nga ang influence niya kay Ellen. Malaking bagay iyan! May he rest in peace!

  9. Mrivera - February 19, 2007 9:11 pm

    ystakei Says:

    February 19th, 2007 at 6:52 am

    Ellen: Tony is known to many as the “undiplomatic” diplomat who, as ambassador to Israel, blasted at Israeli authorities likening the maltreatment of Filipino workers to how the “German Nazis behaved toward the Jews.”

    a right person who have done a right job in a wrong administration. an example of a true public servant in a government full of traitors, coward and thieves.

  10. ystakei - February 20, 2007 9:52 am

    I loved your story, Ellen, about being told to write what you saw when you first went to Vietnam, and not lap up the propaganda. It is actually what journalism is about in Japan, and I do love te exposure I have had for this kind of pure journalism, no propaganda.

    In fact, one reason I was blacklisted in Manila was I exposed the anomalies going right in the Philippine Embassy even after the EDSA 1 when all graft and corruption should have been removed and died with Marcos! I exposed especially the anomalies and scandals that resulted in the labor department of the embassy that resulted in many deaths and maltreatments of those pseudo-entertainers rampantly exported to Japan by the Cory government to the chagrin of feminist movements lobbying for the stopping of such exportation from the Philippines and elsewhere.

    I fearlessly exposed a labor attache, in fact, who had gone in and out of DoLE, and even became an ambassador after that and the other anomalies he had been involved in that even resulted in his being considered persona-non-grata in a country where there is a significant concentration of OFWs. Walang kaibi-kaibigan for which I had made a lot of enemies among these crooks but gained a reputation and admiration among my Japanese colleagues and Japanese authorities.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you there fighting and living up to your professional sans the glamour and nobility (grandness) of being called “a journalist.” I felt funny in fact when I went to Manila and visit the NPC, and saw these lipservers acting as if they were generals for having their names in prints just for splitting their fees from their sponsors with the newspapers they print those propagandas in!

    Frankly, Ellen, the practice should be stopped. And there should be nothing of the seeming split loyalties of these men who should be fighting with their pens to succeed in removing a fiend and a criminal like the woman who has managed to stay in power for corrupting everyone although I believe that no one can be corrupted if he is not himself as corrupt as the one corrupting him.

    Kaya hanga ako doon kay Adel Tamano for standing up for truth and right joining the underdogs who now dare to fight!!! Love these people—Trillanes, Escudero, Cayetano, Pimentel (father and son), and even Noynoy—for clinging to the ideals they stand for really!

    BTW, a famous Japanese confectioner, no pipitsugin company over here, has just closed shop after a media blitz against it in January for a tip from one of its employees who reported that the company was using expired milk for making cakes and candies, and that was a great breach and violation of the Food and Hygiene Law of Japan. Kaya dito, Ellen, kinakatakotan ang media.

    Sa Pilipinas, pinakain na ng uod at lahat nandoon pa rin basta magbayad ng malaking lagay! Tapos ang media, pag humirit pinapatawan ng libel suit! Wow! Kaya, hats off ako kay Ninez C. Olivares. Walang tinag-tinag kung bumira. I like Ka Mentong, too, and most of all, you!!!

    Out na ako sa print business, Ellen, but I’m still very active in the TV medium. I help edit documentaries and doing super impose. We’re watching in fact this caregiving BS of the fraud. We’ve just finished a show for NHK on the subject in fact. One of these days, we may have a documentary on the political killings even together with some independent producers in Europe.

    Kailangan tulung-tulong lang. God willing, truth and justice will prevail. I think Tony Modena would love that and smile on you and others willing to take this great task of removing these fiends that hinder the growth and potential of the Philippine nation to be great!!!


  11. Ellen - February 23, 2007 2:01 pm

    Editorial of Business Mirror:

    SPEAKING of moral courage, no one deserves praise more for standing up for principle, his own career or life be damned, than the Philippine Ambassador to Israel Antonio C. Modena, who died recently at the young age of 58.

    Those familiar with Tony Modena’s colorful life aren’t really surprised he died young, because he had lived a full life, first as a journalist then as a diplomat.

    As a career envoy, Modena was remembered most for his publicized run-in with Israeli authorities in 2005. Exasperated by the unresponsive reception to repeated complaints of mistreatment by Israeli security forces of foreign workers—it was a complaint lodged by several other countries, so the diplomats of these countries backed up Modena in the crisis because he spoke for them—the Philippine ambassador described the treatment of foreign workers as “Gestapo-like,” a phrase that naturally riled the Israelis.

    In the international furor this created, Mr. Modena apologized for his “abusive” language, but not for the sentiment that triggered it. He was not to retreat, after all, from an advocacy he had championed since taking his oath as ambassador, that above all, he would champion his country’s interest and look after his countrymen.

    He was widely cheered by the OFW communities in the Middle East, but he almost lost his job—or at least, his good posting.

    But not once did Tony Modena complain about that. After all, being in a risky position wasn’t new to him. He had been stampeded by peers into becoming president of the labor union set up by workers at the Journal Group of Kokoy Romualdez. Being a good reporter didn’t save him: he was “retrenched” along with 300 others on Christmas of 1983. He joined friends as a deskman at Joe Burgos’s “Mosquito Press” pioneer, Malaya.

    Later, even after passing the foreign service exams, he would pitch in at Malaya on his way home at night, thus continuing to stitch his life with his journalist friends, to whom he would always introduce himself on the phone as “[Robert] Redford here. Can I help you?”

    To some, Tony’s penchant for risk-taking sometimes bordered on recklessness, or even a “macho” psyche. But friends and colleagues who knew him saw this as the essential Modena: talkative, witty, argumentative, but always, intelligent and compassionate.

    To Tony, who fought the good fight and never regretted it, Godspeed.

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