Washington, District of Columbia. The men in the Romulo family have always reserved a special place in their hearts for this city. For seventeen years—during the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy—the capital city was their home. My dad, Bobby, was just six years old when they reached DC after escaping the war in the Philippines. President Roosevelt died soon after their arrival, on April 12, 1945; my uncle Dick—twelve at the time—still remembers the funeral cortege crawling along Constitution Avenue, thousands of mourners lining the street.
While Lolo served as the chief Philippine emissary to the United States, all the way until 1962, Dad went through grade school, preparatory school, and college, finally graduating from Georgetown University in 1960. It was in DC that he forged friendships that survive until today, almost seventy years later.
The first residence the family lived in was 1809 24th Street, a three-story, six-bedroom townhouse built in 1910. Close by were the Dutch Embassy and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s house, and about a kilometer and a half away was the Old Chancery building, where Lolo held office as resident commissioner, at 1617 Massachusetts Avenue. He would later secure a second office at Room 304, 2516 Massachusetts Avenue, the office of the Far Eastern Commission, for which he served as representative from 1946 to 1951. (It was in this capacity that he signed the Japanese Peace Treaty.)
President Manuel Roxas made Lolo the country’s permanent delegate to the newly formed United Nations in May 1946, just weeks before the United States relinquished sovereignty over the Philippines. Now with the rank of ambassador, Lolo split his time between New York City (home of the UN) and Washington, DC, commuting back and forth two times a week. His residence in Manhattan was at 277 Park Avenue, between 47th and 48th streets; and beginning in the fall he occupied an office on the 62nd floor of the Empire State Building (Room 6231).
1946 was a difficult year for the Romulos. Lolo’s long fight with recurring malaria (which he caught in Burma in 1941 and then again during the Battle of Bataan) came to a head in the spring, and he had to be hospitalized; but even malaria didn’t slow him down.
That summer, while Lolo was in London chairing the Conference on Devastated Areas, Lola Virginia began her quest for a suitable family home—one with a garden and a garage. It was no easy task, considering the postwar housing shortage; however, she eventually found a simple square-shaped house with a fireplace, and a front porch laced with spindles. Located in the Embassy Row neighborhood, the cross-gabled four-bedroom house, built in 1923, featured bits of ornamentation but was otherwise unadorned in typical Folk Victorian style.
“It is in a good residential area, and will not be difficult to sell again,” Lola wrote judiciously to her mother-in-law.1 “Pray to God that He will help us. I’m putting just about everything we have into this house, but I hope to make some profit from it.”2 After a period of minor repairs, and a rather frustrating search for quality furniture, she and the boys moved into the house at the end of October.
While Lola was out shopping for homes, so were the Elizaldes. Joaquin Miguel Elizalde, the Philippines’ first ambassador to the US, purchased 2253 R Street as his official residence around the same time. The Philippine government bought it from Elizalde three years later, although Elizalde stayed on until Lolo took over as ambassador in February 1952.
Despite long absences from the family home, as required by Lolo’s fast developing international career, 3422 Garfield Street would remain the Romulos primary address—their “home address”—until 1962.3 Even when Lolo took on the ambassador’s post and they moved into the R Street residence two kilometers away, they continued looking after the Garfield house, taking long evening walks just to check on it.4 They did, however, lease the property to Lieutenant General William Stratton, head of the British Army Staff in DC (and, afterward, Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong), beginning sometime in 1952. Lolo thus found himself without a home at the end of 1953, having returned to the Philippines for several months that year—first to run for president, and then, after withdrawing from the race, to manage Magsaysay’s campaign. Forced to find a temporary dwelling, he, Lola, and my uncle Dick lived in the Westchester Apartments on Cathedral Avenue while they waited for Lolo’s next assignment.
While they were back in the Philippines for the presidential race, my uncle–who was in his third year at Georgetown University–had been living alone at the Dupont Plaza Hotel. My dad had shifted from being a day student to a boarding-school student at Georgetown Prep, where he was in the tenth grade. Back in Manila, the two older boys, Greg and Carlos, Jr., were already building their own careers.
On February 23, 1954, President Magsaysay officially named Lolo his Special and Personal Envoy, although this was almost a formality. Lolo had already been serving, unsalaried, in this capacity since his arrival in Washington on November 15, 1953.
My uncle graduated from Georgetown University in June 1955. As he began law school at Harvard up north, Lolo was serving as chairman of the Philippine delegation to the UN’s fall assembly not too far away, in New York City; at least, for part of the time. The rest of the time he was reporting to Washington, having been reappointed as ambassador to the US by Magsaysay in September.
With their youngest child almost out of high school, the Romulos moved back into the embassy, this time for the long haul, as Lolo served as the country’s ambassador for another seven years.
Looking back to when the Romulo family at last reached the safety of Washington, DC, having escaped Japanese capture in the Philippines, one can only imagine the enormous relief Lolo felt as a husband and as a father. Weak with malaria but with a fierce resolve to do all he could to help rebuild the Philippines, how fitting it was that he represented his constituency, for fifteen years, in what Charles Dickens famously called the “city of magnificent intentions.”
1 Letter from Virginia Llamas Romulo to Lola Maria Peña Vda de Romulo, October 15, 1946.
2 “Ruega tu a Dios que nos ayude. Yo estoy poniendo casi todo lo que tenemos en esta casapeso espero ganar algo tambien despues.”
3 Lolo served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1950 to January 1952. Dad must have been “boarding” in school from 50 to 52, therefore.
4 Letter from lolo to Gregorio Romulo, July 24, 1952.