Wednesday, February 11, 1998
A love story for the books
By Paulynn Paredes Sicam
Gregg Butensky first came to the Philippines in 1993, a year after his girl friend, Cecile Gonzalez Gomez, a Filipino American who grew up in California, died at the age of 29, of a kidney disease. Cecile was active and happy during the two years that they were together in San Francisco, said Gregg, until the illness she had been battling since she was a teenager returned to finally defeat her.
How does one preserve the memory of a woman as bright and vibrant as Cecile?
When she was well, Gregg and Cecile talked a lot about coming to the Philippines, in particular, Numancia, Aklan, to visit the land of her birth. She was only four years old when her family emigrated to the United States and she wanted, someday, to return home. So Gregg decided to come to the Philippines on a sentimental journey, "to see the country as Cecile would have." He visited Numancia where he met her relatives, and toured the rest of the country, taking in the people, their lives, and the many ironies they live with. He liked what he saw and looked for ways to stay and work as a volunteer. Finding none, he returned to California after six months, promising himself that he would be back, in Cecile's memory, to help in any way he could.
One of the things he noticed while going through our towns and cities, was the lack of bookstores and libraries in the provinces. Although there were a lot of books being published in the country which were available in the big cities at reasonable prices, he wondered why these could not be found in the small towns. That was how he hit on the idea of establishing a public library in Cecile's hometown.
Books are among Gregg's passions. The others are writing, photography, music, and the World Wide Web. As a child, he spent the summer months holed up in the public library reading everything he could lay his hands on. Although he is an electrical engineering graduate from Tufts University and he worked as an acoustical engineer before he moved into the Web, he never lost his love for the printed word. When he met Cecile, an international relations major from UC Berkeley, he was delighted that she shared his passion for reading. She loved Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and she wanted to be a writer.
The library idea quickly became Gregg's offering of a legacy of books to the town of Numancia in memory of one of its own daughters. The town was very receptive to the idea. The local government headed by Mayor Adriano Maypa, provided a room at the municipal hall which it renovated at its own expense. As project catalyst, Butensky would raise funds for the capital to set up the library but he would let the locals run it. He would personally choose the books for the library and pay the salaries of its manager and librarian. After a couple of years raising funds, Butensky was ready to launch the project. A year after the project was launched, the library was opened to the public.
Called the "Numancia Municipal Library in honor of Cecile Gonzalez Gomez," Gregg's project was inaugurated last January 24. It had 500 volumes on its shelves and two boxes of books shipped from Manila had not yet reached Numancia. Meanwhile, Gregg acquired by donation or purchase in Manila another 200 books before he left for San Francisco two weeks ago.
Opting for quality more than quantity, Gregg has picked every title in the library. While it would have been easy for him to seek donations of used books in the United States and ship them here to establish several libraries and reading rooms, he opted to buy books by Filipinos and about Filipinos in the Philippines. Sensitive to Filipino sensibilities and wishing to avoid any charge of cultural imperialism, he insists that the library should have a distinctly Philippine perspective.
So he did the round of publishing houses--New Day, Ateneo University Press, University of the Philippines Press, Heritage Publishing House, Tahanan--and bookstores--in particular, the Filipino Bookstore--purchasing books and accepting donations. With the favorable exchange rate, Gregg was happy to see his dollars go a longer way able to buy more books than he had planned to. When I met him, he was scheduled to meet with Cacho Hemanos, Anvil and Adarna Books, among others.
He intends to expand the library's collection, as appropriate, and to provide it with computers not only as tools for bringing 21st century skills into Numancia, but also to expand the library's access to knowledge via CD Rom and the World Wide Web. There is also the children's section that needs to be expanded, with American books on science and technology, since we still lack local titles in S and T.
At the inauguration and blessing of the library, Mayor Maypa presided and the Department of Education Culture and Sports sent a representative. The librarian, who is an unemployed nurse, and the manager, whom Gregg describes as a Renaissance Man, were formally introduced to the townspeople in their new capacities. Cecile's parents were visiting from California, and Gregg Butensky was the guest of honor.
Cecile must have been there too, to thank Gregg for extending his love for her to the people of Numancia, in a most appropriate way.