The only Filipino Rotary Intl. president is honored in tribute dinner

Mat Caparas will be remembered for two initiatives: launching a global campaign to eradicate polio, and opening Rotary International to women members.

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

On December 28, 2019, past Rotary International President Mat Caparas — the only Filipino to become president in RI’s 115-year history —  was honored with a tribute dinner in conjunction with his 96th birthday and his 60 years of Rotary service. 

Rotary International started as the Rotary Club founded by a Chicago lawyer named Paul Harris in 1905 to develop friendships among businessmen, professionals, and entrepreneurs. Its primary motto is “Service Above Self,” the secondary motto being “One Profits Most Who Serves Best.” 

Rotary groups spread rapidly to San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Before long, a Rotary Club was organized in Manitoba, Canada, followed by a Rotary Club in Dublin, Ireland and London. In 1915, a Rotary Club began in Cuba, in 1919 in the Philippines. By 1922, the name was changed to Rotary International.

Mateo Armando Tengco Caparas was born on December 28, 1923 at Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija. His father, a lawyer, settled the family in its farm in Moncada Tarlac. Mat’s schooling at Bulacan High School was interrupted by World War II. He graduated from the UP College of Law in 1949 and received his Masters of Law degree from Harvard Law School in 1950. 

He practiced in Caloocan specializing in labor law and tax cases. In 1960, he transferred his law practice to Manila when he was invited to join the Rotary Club. He rose from being District Governor in 1964-65 to being elected to the Board of Directors in 1979-80. That was the time Pope John Paul II publicly received Rotarians at the Vatican. Mother Teresa was a speaker at the Sao Paulo Rotary International Convention in 1981 when Mat and his wife Nita met her.

Mat and his wife Nita met with Pope John Paul II in late ‘70s, the first time the Pope publicly received Rotarians at the Vatican. 

By 1985, Mat was elected RI president, the first Filipino to assume the post. He introduced the Community Corps program which was adopted by the Rotary Board of Directors in 1988. During his presidency, Rotary started the campaign to raise $120 million to eradicate polio by 2005. The campaign was able to generate more than $240 million in two years. The national immunization was started not only in the Philippines but also in Turkey, Peru, and India during his term. With the additional funding of $200 million from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, the polio virus is practically eradicated worldwide, except in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization announcement on World Polio Day, October 24, 2019. 

Another important change Mat had introduced during his term as president was the admission of women in Rotary clubs in the United States and in all countries.  The 1986 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Duarte case ruled that it was against California’s Civil Rights Act for Rotary International to terminate the membership of the Duarte Club in Los Angeles because it admitted three women as members, contrary to Rotary policy. The Supreme Court in its unanimous decision also stated that “women members would not prevent the club from carrying out its purpose.”  Although the decision pertained to the reinstatement of the Duarte Rotary Club, Mat and the Board of Directors enthusiastically adopted the resolution that all Rotary clubs in the U.S. and in all countries could invite and accept women members. He announced the amendment to the rules in the annual convention in Munich, Germany.  

“It was met with great enthusiasm and applause,” recalled Mat.

In the Philippines, Mat was appointed by President Cory Aquino chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) in 1988. He became the agency’s fourth chairman tasked with recovering the stolen wealth of the Marcoses and returning them to the national treasury.

On January 27, 2013, Mat, a graduate of the UP College of Law 1949 was honored with a Humanitarian Award from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of San Francisco. The award was given “in recognition of his dedicated years of service to his fellow men, distinguishing himself as a compassionate lawyer, his chairmanship of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, and being the only Filipino to be elected president of Rotary International, where he was instrumental in galvanizing the worldwide campaign to totally eradicate the crippling and fatally infectious polio virus from the face of the earth.”

Now a widower, Mat has reached the blessed age of 96 years but his mind remains ever lucid and clear. He and his late wife Nita have three surviving children: Jorge, Matt, and Pilar; eight grandchildren; and two great granddaughters.  

His is a purpose-driven life of service. God bless him! 

(C) The FilAm 2020

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