by Mafelou C. Leagogo-Agriam
(CREAM, August 1994)
Outside the gates of John B. Lacson Colleges Foundation (JBLCF), Inc., Dr. Mary Lou Lacson-Arcelo is quite a mystery.
By personal choice, this dignified lady educator, a Ph. D. holder in education, leads a very quiet life that’s fully devoted to ensuring the continuing growth and progress of JBLCF as one of the country’s premier producers of highly competent seamen for both domestic and foreign shipping lines.
Formerly called the Iloilo Maritime Academy, JBLCF stands as the first institution to provide maritime education in the Visayas and Mindanao. It was established in 1984 by her father, the late Master Marine Juan B. Lacson — better known as “John” during his stint with the United States Coast Guard. The school started in a single building at Muelle Loney, Iloilo City’s domestic port area.
Cover Photo: Mandy Navasero
When Dr. Mary Lou took over as school administrator in 1972, the school gradually expanded into four modern and sprawling campuses in Western Visayas. For over 20 years, she run this school like a one-woman committee. Through her efforts, JBLCF was converted into a foundation in 1985, and earned for itself a niche in the maritime industry as a respectable institution in the local, national and international levels.
To date, JBLCF campuses may be found in Arevalo (over two hectares), and Molo (three hectares) in Iloilo City; Bacolod City (eight hectares); and in the province of Guimaras (called JBLCF Puerto del Mar spreading across 34 hectares of land). In these four school units, brave and adventurous young men are transformed into disciplined, capable, professional and values-oriented seafarers the country can be mighty proud of for their maritime skills and dollar-earning capacity.
How did a stylish and pretty woman like Dr. Mary Lou get into a predominantly male enclave as a maritime academy? A quick flashback into her past does not reveal any talent for the maritime profession. After all, the young Lacson girl was convent-bred and trained to become a fine lady. The only reason she can think of for having returned from Manila to manage the family-owned school is filial duty being the only one among the siblings in the field of education.
From the age of 10 until high school, the youngest Lacson daughter studied and boarded in a local convent school, the Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Iloilo City. Cloistered and protected by a strict father, she grew up practically knowing nothing about the real world.
“I didn’t know anything about the realities of the world,” she laughs in her Molo office, casually clad in tee-shirt with a vest, string of gold chains hanging from her neck, and loose pants. Nearby, her good friend, the Manila-based ace photographer and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Mandy Navasero teases, bringing more rounds of guffaws from the lady. Only her gold-rimmed spectacles remind the people around that she’s the boss, and a serious one if not for Mandy’s hilarious interruptions. “I didn’t even know how to cross the street! I could not go to parties. I had no boyfriend.”
Moving to Manila for her college education gave her the freedom she longed for. In time, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature from the Lyceum of the Philippines, got married, and later completed a Masters Degree in education from the Philippine Women’s University. As expected, she became a teacher, lecturing on English and Literature at the Sta. Isabel College and the San Juan de Dios College of Nursing. “I had my own career,” she says.
An SOS call from her father in Iloilo suddenly cut short her career. Thinking her coming home would be a temporary respite for only a year, she decided to help. “Ang condition ko sa father ko, he must give me a free hand in running the school. Basta walang interferences from him. He agreed and eventually I discovered what the students and faculty wanted.”
Under her leadership, the school structure and systems were stabilized. The problems were finally resolved. “While running the school, I found out that the job was tailor-made for me. My stay in Iloilo stretched on for five years until I finally decided to stay for good.”
Twenty-two years after, a Ph. D from the University of San Agustin in hand, and four modern campuses later, Dr. Mary Lou now sits back more relaxed and assured about JBLCF. “This school is one of the few (maritime institutions) recognized internationally. The other is in Cebu, and another in Manila.” Captain Juan B. Lacson’s dream of producing graduates to lead ships sailing the seven seas has come true, thanks to the foresight and management acumen of his daughter. With everything in place now, Dr. Mary Lou can step back and see the school progress in the hands of equally competent men.
Just last June, Dr. Mary Lou retired as school president. Under the new set-up, four administrators run the four campuses, taking over her duties in the process. She sits as chairman, however, of the executive council composed of these administrators, serving as their consultant and adviser.
With the new set-up, Dr. Mary Lou can spend more time to indulge in her personal pursuits. This time, she is particularly attentive to making Puerto del Mar in Guimaras a tourist resort. The area is one of the newest pleasure places in the region set up only two years ago.
Envisioned as a conservation place for plants and marine life where people blend in to enjoy nature’s myriad treasures, Dr. Mary Lou has personally seen to the planting of flowering shrubs and fruit-bearing trees in some areas. Resort guests are rallied to support her environmental concerns. As reminders, framed notices request them not to destroy the plants, to refrain from littering, and to please pick up (for souvenirs) only the fossilized shells.
By the looks of the unspoiled place, her campaign seems to work. The beach remains clean; the white sand is free of picnickers’ garbage; and the blue sea continues to bring in clean water to the shore instead of plastic bags and man-made trash. Her being elected president of the Guimaras Resorts Association is a good assurance the other resorts around the island province will remain beautiful havens of nature’s bounty.
Puerto del Mar is an extraordinary beach resort whose charm is gracefully conveyed in three coves sculpted by nature itself. The first cove is the Mooring Cleat where kiosk and huts are rented out to picnickers. The second is the Aqua Center where guests can do water sports. Boats and equipment are available for them, including those used for snorkelling, raft fishing and sailing. JBLCF students are trained in swimming, fire fighting, and Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in this area. Finally, the third cove is the Villa Corazon for its heart-shaped lagoon filled with carp and tilapia. Cottages for vacationists are built close to the sea.
There may be several hats Dr. Mary Lou wears with confidence outside her home, but where the hearth is, she is basically a wife, mother and grandmother. She is wife of Dr. Adrian Arcelo, Ed. D., mother to two children from her previous marriage, namely, Teresa “Terry” Sebastian-Sarabia and Ronald, and grandmother to Terry’s children by husband Salvador “Dong” Sarabia, Jr. — Don, Frederick, Lee, and Margaret. Her social life, she says, is “comatose.”
Mary Lou with children Dr. Terry Sebastian-Sarabia and Dr. Ronald Sebastian
“Hindi ko type and magsosyal. Actually, I have no social life. Pero kung may educators forum, I am willing to attend them. It is easy for me to be invited to this kind of forum than to social functions.” It was in fact in an educators forum that she met her husband.
“Adrian is a very prominent man,” she says. “He is a private person although he is often tapped by the government. He was once undersecretary of education during President Aquino’s term. He now works as consultant at the Asian Development Bank.” Dr. Adrian Arcelo is also president of the Fund for Assistance to Private Education (FAPE).
“My husband and I are compatible. He encourages me to do anything I want… to write (Ed’s note: She has made a painting hanging on her office wall in the JBLCF Molo). There are so many doors opened for me but relax muna ako.”
It’s hard to believe Dr. Mary Lou will be able to relax in the true sense of the word. She is such a multi-faceted woman who never runs out of ideas where she knows she will shine through.