Frank Chavez: Warrior litigator, beloved father figure

MANILA, Philippines - Frank Chavez was a man who never backed down from a fight.

"He was an extreme warrior. He did not hesitate to fight or to challenge somebody to a fight. He was a warrior litigator," recalled lawyer Victor Lazatin of ACCRA law, a former classmate. 

The life of the man who would one day be solicitor general during the time of President Corazon Aquino seemed defined by conflict.

As a young man in his hometown of Bateria in Negros Occidental, he paid for his college education by prizefighting, taking on opponents of all shapes and sizes in the boxing ring.

Though he must have tasted defeat in these underground fights, he was unbeatable in academics, graduating summa cum laude in West Negros College in Bacolod City in 1967 with a degree in English.

A member of the Sigma Rho fraternity in the University of the Philippines where he took up law, he did not shy away from spats between brotherhoods. But his feistiness saw him rise up to an even more fearsome foe: his own circumstances.

"He was really poor. He got by on scholarships. He never bought any book in school, all of his books were borrowed," said Lazatin.

"That's why he was so determined to make a good life for himself. He really worked hard."

Eventually, Chavez would become one of the most successful litigators in his law school Batch of 1971.

"If you gauge it financially, among our classmates he probably is the most successful. He's the only one who lives in Forbes," chuckled Lazatin.

Fighter's spirit

From a scruffy boy peddling fights on the rugged streets of Negros, Chavez reinvented himself as a debonair lawyer, elegantly suited with never a strand of hair out of place. The only thing he kept from his past, it seemed, was his fighter's spirit. 

But there were bigger fish to fry.

At the height of martial law, Chavez became one of Ferdinand Marcos' harshest critics.

He founded the Brotherhood of Nationalistic, Involved and Free Attorneys to Combat Injustice and Oppression (BONIFACIO) offering free services as a lawyer to represent human rights victims during the dictator's regime. 

Bellicose and bombastic, he caught the attention of Corazon Aquino who found a den in which the lion could freely roar: the Office of the Solicitor General. And roar the lion did. In his years in the public eye, he filed numerous cases against various public officials, including a plunder case against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"His unyielding passion for defending human rights and battling corruption and vested interests earned him not a few enemies, but it endeared him to those who believe in the rule of law and human dignity," said Vice President Jejomar Binay in a statement.

The circumstances of Chavez' death on September 11 at the age of 66 did not go unnoticed by those familiar with his crusade.

"Frank Chavez died on Marcos's birthday; I think Chavez would be chuckling at the irony," tweeted Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te, a former human rights lawyer.

FAREWELL. Friends and colleagues mourn the loss of a loyal friend and beloved mentor. File photo

FAREWELL. Friends and colleagues mourn the loss of a loyal friend and beloved mentor.

File photo

Rennaisance man

When news of Chavez' death reached his friend and fellow BONIFACIO member Fulgencio "Jun" Factoran, he instantly recalled the last time he had seen the man.

"It was at the birthday party of Bien Cabral. He was ebullient, his usual funny self. He was a very good singer so he sang 'I Started A Joke.' Frank brought the house down."

"Bringing the house down" was something Chavez seemed to do often.

"Anything that Frank was interested in, he excelled," said Lazatin.

"He was good at Toastmasters Club. He was in the debate team. He was a marathon-runner. He was also a very good shooter. He was a very good singer. He wrote poetry."

Many of his poems can be read in "Blighted," a novel written by Chavez which Lazatin said is semi-autobiographical.

"He had a photographic memory. I don't think anybody could beat him with respect to sheer and good memory. Anything he reads, he instantly memorizes. That's why he was very quotable," Lazatin added.

Father figure

The fighter of his enemies was also a protector of his friends.

Andre de Jesus, a former senior associate in Chavez' law firm (Chavez Miranda Aseoche Law Offices), remembers his former boss, "It was virtually impossible to be afraid, especially if you knew that Attorney Chavez was with you in waging war."

"If you told him that a judge, lawyer, or party was unduly giving you a hard time, he would take you seriously. And he would take the matter personally."

But there was another side to him.

"What I remember most about Attorney Chavez is his humanity. Underneath his sharp suits was a man who loved life and knew how to laugh," wrote de Jesus in a Facebook post.

The same man de Jesus described "the best litigator this generation has ever seen," he also called his "second father."

His friends and foes alike agree that Chavez fought all sorts of fights. His crusade against corruption has not yet been won. Perhaps his passing is a reminder that now more than ever, more warriors need to rise. - Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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