In honor of Elsa Pelaez-Pelaez, co-foundress of Liceo de Cagayan University, whose 107th birth anniversary is celebrated on August 10, here are snippets of her life and times:
Prominence runs in her blood. Belonging to erudite families and being hailed as the “belle of Cebu,” she was unquestionably a lady of her time.
Elsa Pelaez y Cuadra was born on the 10th of August in the year 1910. Her mother, Doña Fidela Cuadra de Pelaez named her first child to Don Vicente Pelaez after the heroine of the Wagnerian opera Lohengrin.
The child grew up just when the Americans were starting to emerge as a mounting major power. Her childhood years were torn between the Spanish manners that her father kept on upholding while also facing the new nationalist spirit that the Americans brought.
She spent her first eleven or twelve years of studies at the Colegio dela Inmaculada Concepcion (CIC) the first all-girls school in Visayas, founded by Roman Catholic nuns in 1880. For students of their time, especially for women, taking up a college degree was never that easy to attain, as girls of their age usually had to sacrifice that aspiration for their brothers; but Elsa was very blessed and courageous enough to have pursued her college education.
Don Vicente was very firm in standing up for the Spanish blood that ran through his veins that he persisted in speaking Spanish when everyone else already shifted in English. As a loving father to his children, he wanted to expose his eldest to the finest minds of the nation by encouraging Elsa to enroll at the University of the Philippines, the country’s top government university. Preferring to stay closer to home, she took up the first two years of her Bachelor of Arts degree major in English in Cebu when she was admitted at the UP Junior College in Lahug in June 1930 and continued the last two years at UP-Manila in the mid-1932. After years of studying, Elsa wore a proud face as she graduated belonging to the March 1934 graduates of the UP-College of Liberal Arts with the degree, Bachelor of Philosophy.
She then travelled back to Cebu and got her first job as English teacher at the Southern Institute (University of Southern Philippines), a school established in the late 1920’s by the Jerezas, family friends of the Pelaezes.
Back then the Pelaezes were known in their place in Cebu, Sepulveda Street, for throwing parties and social gatherings as their means of home entertainment, inviting the other well-known families and the religious. There would be merrymaking until the wee hours of the morning. But after all these jamboree and joviality in the 30’s, there came the devastating Pearl Harbor attack on December 8, 1941, which signalled the start of the Japanese invasion. This alarmed the other lands farther to the south, like the Philippines; Cebu was one of the first cities to be bombed, creating mass panic. This event prompted Don Vicente to move his entire family to their 800-hectare cattle ranch in Tangkulan, Bukidnon, which Don Vicente acquired in the 1920’s. He thought it would be safer to stay there; moreover, food seemed more accessible there.
In Mindanao, Don Vicente made his last involvement in politics by running for Congress. As a lawyer, he had been in the chaotic world of political affairs since his electoral try in 1916. This decision paved the way for his daughter Elsa to cross paths with Rodolfo Pelaez, who was to become her husband.
Though Don Vicente had already engaged himself with other Pelaezes in terms of law and business matters, it was when Doña Paz, of the Neri clan in Cagayan de Oro, sought Don Vicente’s help about the disputed will of his brother Don Faustino Neri San Jose that kicked off the love story of Rodolfo (“Roding”), her son to a Pelaez scion, and Elsa.
Rodolfo and Elsa got to know each other more when Don Vicente and Elsa started to have meetings with Doña Paz and Roding, Don Faustino’s legally designed heir. Even after the case was resolved, the communication between the two continued through an exchanged of love letters.
Doña Paz, who was the first one who really noticed and appreciated the beauty of Elsa, kept on mentioning her as an ideal wife for her son. Being a religious woman, she admired Elsa’s piety.
Rodolfo and Elsa found a new life after their simple yet meaningful wedding, beginning a life shared as one. Unfortunately, they lost their first baby because of a miscarriage. They named him Cipriano (1948). But on the day of October 24, 1949, the Pelaezes were all delighted when Elsa finally gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Rafaelita, fondly known as Oche. Rafaelita became the family’s center of attention, earning excellent care and love during her growing years.
A teacher by profession, Elsa conceived the idea to build a school. Roding knew how Elsa loved her profession so much that he promised to build a school for her someday. Inspired by the Jerezas’ Southern Institute, Elsa’s idea would then create an educational revolution in Northern Mindanao. The name Liceo de Cagayan was derived from the legendary Liceo de Manila after the establishment of Malolos republic in 1898, and, more recently, Jose B. Laurel’s Lyceum of the Philippines.
Roding and Elsa provided all the funds and investments for building the school. Officially founded on February 4, 1955, Liceo opened its first academic year, 1955-1956, in June 1955. Starting with 168 students, the school population nearly tripled to 450 in the next school year. With Php 60 per semester of Php 120 per school year, the school had the lowest tuition fee compared to other schools at that time.
Liceo was originally a Law School, with its faculty composed of local judges, fiscals, legal practitioners, as well as former politicians. Its first law dean was Atty. Fausto Dugenio. He later quit after being elected governor of Misamis Oriental. Located at the Gaerlan Street, Liceo had an original two-story wooden building, to which annexes were then added later to answer the school’s rapid increase of population. This rapid growth of students resulted to the relocation of Liceo de Cagayan from its original site, which was in front of the Cathedral, to its present site in Carmen.
Rodolfo and Elsa dedicated their lives to building and running a school that was intended to serve not the wealthy youth but the poor and deserving children of the deprived and struggling masses. Together they shaped their dreams and worked as one to make that dream come true. That dream – now Liceo de Cagayan University – became the symbol of their enduring love and endless legacy.
Reference: Navarro, Nelson A., Rodolfo and Elsa Pelaez: 20th Century Legacy. Cagayan de Oro City, Rodolfo N. Pelaez Foundation, Inc. 2009