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WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: No Doubt Thomas

mindaviews gail ilagan wayward and fanciful column opinion

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 06 April) – Walking into the Faculty Union Conference Room for Prof Alisa Cabacungan’s dissertation defense yesterday, I was pleasantly happy to find fellow psychologists Drs. Orange Lozada, Fe Arcenas, Nieto Vitto, and Ruel Billones. The latter is based in the East Coast and was here to personally attend his mentee’s presentation. Used to having him online for these research review processes in the past few years, we were pleasantly surprised to find him in the flesh. I had last seen him at the APA conference in San Francisco before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doc Ruel did his dissertation under my advice years ago. Despite moving away, he maintains his ties to his alma mater, supporting student research and publication and teaching health psychology. When your mentee becomes a mentor, it indeed is time to retire.

Ruel brought with him another pleasant surprise – someone I hadn’t seen in years who unfailingly made every encounter a pleasant one. Thomas Kellenberger is proof that good people exist.

I last spoke to Thomas by viber in April 2023. He had just arrived in Manila and was out to dinner with COPERS’ boy palaboy – mostly swapping tales of the road, I’d expect. Onscreen, Tomas had looked weary and gaunt, having walked for over two years across 20 countries. I wished Thomas good luck on that last leg getting back to Cagayan de Oro.

He was back safe. That’s good. Ruel and I had idly Zoomed about taking time off and joining Thomas when he got to Vietnam or Laos, but am afraid nothing came of it. I got busy wrapping up for retirement and Ruel had to contend with relocating across states for work. We never took up the conversation again. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of Thomas’ progress through Brady Eviota’s Alpside column on MindaViews or on the Island Kids’ website.

Before he left for Bern, Thomas had inquired about our PhD program at the AdDU. Island Kids’, the foundation he started up in CDO in 2007, needed a psychologist. I think he already took the entrance exams, but never got around to enrolling. Ruel informed me later that he had been home in Bern and that his mom had died. His mom had been his most ardent fundraiser, supporting Thomas’ mission to provide a safety net for at-risk kids in CDO, one that would improve their chances for a better quality of life now and in the future.

She died, and Thomas needed to process his grief with a very long walk. He’d thought about taking that Camino de Santiago walk, but heading to Spain would take him farther away from the Philippines. He decided instead on taking off from Bern to CDO. Sure, he might have had to contend with different border restrictions in the time of COVID, but that was just one of the many considerations that he trusted would resolve itself.

The distance might sound unthinkable to some, but Thomas never made it out like it was a superhuman thing or a ponderously dramatic gesture to do. He just needed to walk, and if in the course of walking he decided to cut it, that would be fine, too.

A former policeman in Bern, Thomas is like a Swiss knife – a can-do person not weighed down by too much baggage. He is quick to see the distress in others and ready to pitch in to make things better. Thomas had served as part of COPERS’ volunteer psychosocial support team for many disasters that our Center responded to when I was its director. I was often comforted to have him on the team because he was a harmonizing presence among the volunteers. We benefited from his invaluable security perspective (he had more experience operating in these areas than most of us) and his skills at community work. Heck, he spoke conversation dialect better than I can.

Anyway, the defense proceedings took over two hours and it was only at communal lunch that we had the opportunity to catch up a bit. He’s looking a bit rested now, and he’s gained back some weight. We discussed some of his lingering health issues, mostly from the toll of that last leg, as well as updates on the foundation’s management during his absence. His faith in the goodness of people is unshakeable, even as it is realistic. I think he is misnamed. He is no doubting Thomas.

I had just told him about retiring in May to spend more time with my mother only to lose her last October. His eyes lit up in sympathy, but he never got to say what he might have wanted to say because I got called away for something else. And then I had to leave. They invited me to dinner but I had to regretfully decline because I had another defense scheduled that evening.

It was good to see him. It’s also good to have left some matters hanging, I think, because it means we’ll talk again.

Seeing him and Ruel reminded me that sometimes it is good for me in my retirement to see my people again.

Gail Ilagan is the former chair of the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Readers may reach her at gail@mindanews.com.

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