POMPEYO DIAZ: A MAN OF THE ATENEO, A MAN OF THE LAW

Any graying or balding Ateneo boy can instantly (if dimly) recall the opening line of Aeneid, the epic work of the great roman poet Virgil, which, in the Ateneo of our time, we had to recite in didactic hexameter.

Looking for the most apt accolade I could find for a gentleman I have always admired with measureless respect and fondness beyond the limits of human language, I raced back in time and found that opening line from many years long since drained into the unremitting heraclitian flow of the river of life; Arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and the man). Only an authentic Ateneo hero deserves such honor.

I speak of Pompeyo Diaz, dean of of the Ateneo Law School in the Padre Faura campus from 1967 to 1974.

I initially thought that writing this piece would be a daunting task. It was not. It is, after all, never difficult to write about a person, who, throughout his lifetime, held on tightly to that bright flame treasured in an inner shrine, an impregnable citadel, where nothing but the essential reigned, no matter what was without. Men like Pompeyo Diaz know what really matters in this sweet but all too brief life.Vita dulcis. Vita brevis. Ergo, quantum tantum. Respice finem. They only the essential and sweep aside the inconsequential and merely important. They perceive the end from the very beginning.

Dean Pompeyo Diaz was a picture of old-world dignity, civility, and gentility. To those who did not know him, he wore a stern facial expression and a pair of piercing eyes-like those of jurists of yore who held sway over the lives and circumstances of men. That was deceiving, however, for there was in truth neither arrogance nor self-righteousness in him. Those who knew him saw nothing but humility, and a kind and compassionate heart.

In 1970, he was our professor in Persons and Family Relations, the first major subject in the College of Law. We loved his lectures, as well as his stories and anecdotes, of which there were many. His jokes were delivered poker-faced, like his admonition to our classmates who could not quite keep up, to drop out of law school and enrol instead in the conservatory of music. That, of course, was just his way of prodding us to do better, of pricking our pride without insult or humiliation.

Dean Diaz started his judicial career as a judge of what was then the Court of First Instance for the Province of Rizal, with station in Pasig. He was one of the youngest judges then, sworn in by no less than his own father, Supreme Court Justice Anacleto Diaz. As he recalled that day:

“After the oath-taking, my father took me in his own car and drove me to the courthouse in Pasig. He led me into the building, up to the stairs to the second floor, and walked with me to the door of the sala which would now be mine. He stood by the door and let me enter alone. I did, and I went straight to my desk. There I saw a piece of paper upon which were written in Latin, in my father’s own handwriting, those awesome words which must have shaken the walls of the Senate in ancient Rome: Fiat justitia ruat coelum! (Let by justice be done though the heavens fall!)”.

He lived by those words almost as an article of faith, especially throughout his public life as a lawyer.

Shortly after assuming the presidency after the death of President Manuel Roxas, President Elpidio Quirino promoted him from judge of the Court of First Instance to solicitor general, concurrently government corporate counsel from 1951 – 1952. As chief counsel of the government, he displayed sapientia et eloquentia. He had that extraordinary ability to come up with the concise words to express and articulate the most complex of his thoughts.

On June 6, 1952, President Quirino elevated him as associate justice of what was then a 15-member Court of Appeals and, later that year, as presiding justice of the same court. He was, thereafter, nominated by President Quirino to the Supreme Court (indeed the worthy son of a worthy father). But, as fate would have it, President Ramon Magsaysay had in the meantime won the 1953 presidential elections and the victorious Nacionalista Party and its new adherents in the Commission on Appointments were no longer in the mood to confirm his nomination, made by the outgoing president, to the high court.

While it will never be known how Dean Diaz would have enriched Philippine jurisprudence and legal tradition, his ideas and ideals have lived on, nurtured by the countless men and women to whom he taught the law the only way it should be taught: by personal example. Upon his retirement from teaching in 1981, he was given the honor of addressing the graduating students of the Ateneo Law School one last time. He admonished them:

“There are men in any society who are self-serving that they try to make law serve their selfish ends. In this group of men, the most dangerous is the man who knows the law but who has no conscience. He has, in the arsenal of his knowledge, the very tools by which he can poison and disrupt society and bring it to an ignoble end.”

Not unlike the Stoics’ ideal of the wise man, Dean Diaz, Ateneo hero of the old school, was like the good athlete who strove to the utmost and played the game well but not necessarily to win it. For he was a man of substance and consequence, immune from wilting and the withering of the leaves of a mortal victor’s laurel wreath. He possessed an evenly poised spirit that burned bright within him all throughout his life and a pride that would utter neither a word of servile appeal nor an accusatory reproach no matter what life dealt him.

Dean Diaz was, and continues to be, the enduring influence in my own career as a lawyer and now, as chief justice of the Supreme Court. I have been guided by the sterling ideals of this great Atenean, my inspiration, the personification of all that justice stands for and all that the Ateneo has always wanted me to be. He was one of the rare of the golden virtues of honor and respectability.

Let Lord Byron thus have the final word on Pompeyo Diaz, the man.

The man of firm and noble soul,

No factious clamours can control,

No threat’ning tyrant’s darkling brow

Can swerve him from his just intent.

Gales to curb the Adriatic main,

Would awe his fixed, determined mind in vain.

Renato Corona (GS ’62, HS ’66, AB GS ’70, LLB ’74) is the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Source: “Ateneans Inspiring Ateneans” 1859-2009 by Ateneo de Manila University Press.