I remember Dick Gordon

It was May 1980 when I arrived in the Philippines and prepared to take command of the U.S. Naval Supply Depot (NSD) on the Philippines Navy base at Subic Bay. It was a dream assignment for a U.S. Navy Captain who loved the business of the Navy. At the change of command, a young Philippine dignitary came up to greet me. It was the new youthful mayor of Olongapo, Dick Gordon. What a day to remember. The next two years the Philippines would be my wife’s and my home and Dick Gordon would become my friend.

Dick Gordon had just taken over as mayor and invited me to his office. He asked for my help as a base commanding officer. He had plans. The city had little money and he wanted to help the families of firefighters and the police. Taking advantage of Olongapo’s reputation as an entertainment city, he organized quarterly “Mardi Gras,” street parades of student groups, dancers, musicians, marchers, etc., fantastic street parties that would raise money for the community. He charged a peso to come on to the streets. Sailors on liberty were not happy about having to pay. But soon everyone joined in. It was all about benefiting the people of Olongapo. Helping those that served the people of Olongapo. That is why I remember Dick Gordon.

Mayor Gordon was not satisfied with law and order in his city. He sat about building pride in the city security forces. He wanted to make the city safe for its citizens and the visiting U.S. Navy. The Navy had a curfew; sailors and marines had to be back on board the base at midnight. Within two years the city had become so safe that the Navy cancelled its curfew. It was a tribute to the mayor. That is how I remember Dick Gordon.

Mayor Gordon found the streets of Olongapo chaotic, traffic terrible and dangerous, and there was no structure to help people travel around a city of almost a quarter million people. He organized jeepney driving patterns, set up traffic zones, made it simple to find transportation, and made the streets safe. He understood the complexities of a great city.

Mayor Gordon was worried about Philippine young men and women, those who could not attend high school or could not get jobs. He and I co-founded the Subic Bay Industrialization Opportunities Foundation to conduct vocational training for unemployed youth. The base commanding officers joined him. Class room training in brick laying, electricity, stevedoring, carpentry, and other skills were set up in the city using retired base employees who were experts. Students came on to the base for hands on apprentice training. Graduates were awarded certificates and helped find jobs on the base or with overseas employment agencies. Today Olongapo has a wonderful vocational training center. That is why I remember Dick Gordon.

After World War Two, the city of Olongapo and the U.S. Navy base were almost as one. But that changed over the next forty years. The city grew. It achieved independence from the American-dominated base. Dick Gordon’s father, James, became its leader, the first mayor, but killed by rivals’ in1967. It became the stewardship of the Gordon family to make the city something special. Amelia Gordon became mayor, took into her home AmerAsian children, created an orphanage, and taught her children the responsibilities of caring for the country and its citizens. Decades later, the Pearl S. Buck Foundation recognized her for her international work. Service to others over service to self was what she taught her children. She taught Richard J. Gordon well. That is why I remember Dick Gordon.

My time as Commanding Officer of NSD Subic was not perfect. One of my sailors was killed in Olongapo and I had to write his mother. Dick Gordon told me what to say about the man who was caught and punished. One of my senior officers died by drowning off islands north of Subic while his wife and four children watched him being swept away. Dick and Kate Gordon had the family into their home, gave them gifts of the Philippines, and helped soothed their grief. Now they will never forget the Philippines and the goodness of its people. Kindness to all people who mourn is why I remember Dick Gordon.

Some thought of Olongapo as a “sin city”. Dick thought of it an “entertainment city”. The truth is that some of the most fantastic entertainers in the Philippines practiced their music at the clubs on Magsaysay Street. They honed their skills. The musicians were wonderful and from Olongapo they launched careers all over the world. Freddie Aguilar was my favorite and in 1982 he and I were given an award by the city. Today Olongapo is an international model city, just as Mayor Gordon knew it would be.

Dick Gordon had a vision for Subic Bay and his country. He knew the United States colonial era had ended decades before and only the two U.S. bases, Subic and Clark, remained. In 1981 he told me that someday the U.S. Navy would be gone. He told me he saw Subic as a free port like Hong Kong. I did not think the United States would ever leave. I was wrong. Dick Gordon’s’ vision was realized. He has the capacity to see a future for the Republic of the Philippines. That is how I remember Dick Gordon.

In 1992, the U.S. Navy reluctantly left Subic Bay. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo the year earlier had devastated the old Clark Air Force Base. Americans abandoned it, and looters scavenged it. Dick Gordon did not want to see that happen in Subic. Unlike Clark where some chose to give up, Dick Gordon chose to stay, fight and preserve. He sent out a clarion call to those who cared. Literally thousands of Filipinos, from all around the world, came to his aid. They protected the buildings. They protected the trees and jungle, and they protected the base facilities, buildings, and tools for the future. He had the charismatic capacity to call forward people to follow his lead, his vision, for his country. The old U.S. Navy base became a free trade port. Dick Gordon became the first leader of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. All over Asia he garnered for his country billions of pesos of investment in jobs and industry. Today Subic Bay has more Filipinos employed than before my U.S. Navy left. Ten years later when I returned, I found that Subic with Clark had become the economic heartland of the Philippines. It is all because of the vision of my friend, Richard J. Gordon. That is why I remember Dick Gordon.

Dan McKinnon, March 29, 2010

(Editor’s Note: Dan McKinnon is a retired Rear Admiral in the Supply Corps of the United States Navy.)