GUIMARAS, PHILIPPINES (THE INQUIRER/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It was in March 1941 when Jose Gaitan Gandecela graduated from A. Marisol Elementary School in Mandurriao, Iloilo City.
He was all set for continued studies - until the flames of World War II spread to the Asia-Pacific region in December that year.
His academics sidelined for 77 years, Mr Gandecela finally got to finish junior high school on Nov 17 this year, earning a certificate he can frame and proudly hang on his wall.
The Department of Education (DepEd) has confirmed that 90-year-old "Tatay Jose" was the oldest person to pass the accreditation and equivalency (A&E) test under the Alternative Learning System (ALS), the DepEd programme that provides an option for those who could not obtain formal education through regular attendance in schools.
Mr Gandecela went to an ALS class from January to October 2017 and took the A&E test on March 11 this year. With a score of 81.60 per cent - well above the overall passing percentage score of 60 per cent - he received a Certificate of Rating from the DepEd's Bureau of Education Assessment.
The certificate states that he has met the basic requirements for Grade 10 and is now qualified for senior high school "subject to the admission policies of the accepting institution". The document serves as the equivalent of a report card under the formal school system.
The announcement of Tatay Jose's test results in the last week of September turned him into a celebrity of sorts in this part of Guimaras. Word quickly spread about the feat accomplished by this father of seven (now all professionals) and whose extended family includes 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
"After the war, I married Eca (Francisca Angeles). Going back to school was out of the question (because of our growing family)," he recalled in an Inquirer interview.
The fisherman's son earned a living by transporting cargo to Iloilo City, Negros Island and Roxas City in Capiz with six "batil" (wooden motorboats) that he owned. Later, he served as a "teniente del barrio", or village chief.
Dedicated to Eca
Last year, he was able to find an ALS schedule that allowed him to attend class only on Fridays at Dr. Catalino G. Nava Memorial High School in San Lorenzo town.
However, on March 3, a week before his crucial A&E test, Eca died after an eight-year battle with colon cancer.
His life upended and thrown into grief, the widower doubted if he could overcome the emotional stress enough to hurdle the exam.
But then he told himself: "(Eca) was the one who encouraged me to enroll in ALS."
"I dedicate my achievement to her. If she were still alive, she would be so proud of me… so proud of me," Mr Gandecela said, still swelling with affection at the mere mention of Eca's name. The couple would have celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary on Nov 18.
"She took good care of me. I am very sad, but I tell myself that she just went away for a while and will come back. You realise someone's true value when that person is gone. She would have enjoyed entertaining the people interviewing me (for my achievement). She was that friendly. She would have been so proud of me," he said.
While he and Eca were busy raising their children, Mr Gandecela served as chief of Barangay Dolores for 29 years without salary.
He was first appointed teniente del barrio during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal.
In 1959, after Congress passed a law that paved the way for the selection of village chiefs through the ballot, Tatay Jose won the polls hands down and became the first elected village chief of his community.
"At first, you just get appointed to that position by the mayor. By virtue of Republic Act No. 2370, an election was held. Then after about 10 years, Congress passed Republic Act No. 3590, changing the title of barrio lieutenant to barangay captain. You know, I memorised all that when I was still a barangay captain," he recalled with a smile.
Mr Gandecela decided to retire from public service in 1989 - only to be requested by his constituents to take the position vacated by a barangay councillor. This gave him a second government stint that lasted from 1992 to 2002.
Ms Henrietta Dulay, Mr Gandecela's eldest child, spoke reverently of the patriarch.
"Tatay was so strict when we were growing up, always reminding us of the importance of education. Today, he remains as sharp as he was 50 years ago. He asks me and my siblings to buy a newspaper for him whenever we go to the city so he can answer the crossword puzzle in English. He would leave the Filipino crossword for me."
The newly minted ALS finisher wonders why there were still so many out-of-school young people in his community, considering the opportunity offered by the DepEd programme.
"Today, we have five high schools in Nueva Valencia, but I still see many of them (out-of-school youngsters)," he says.
"The youth should understand that they have it easy today. I wanted to study (when I was young), but there were no high schools here in Guimaras back then. I hope I can inspire them to go back to school."
For Guimaras Schools Division superintendent Luz delos Reyes, Tatay Jose is more than qualified for that role.
"May this serve as an inspiration for the youth to never lose hope, to keep chasing their dreams. The experience of Tatay Jose is an example of perseverance, of not giving up. He may be the oldest among the ALS passers in the country, but his message is this: Given the best opportunities, access and support, anything is possible," Ms delos Reyes said.