Academician and Professor Emeritus Fortunato Sevilla, III: Sketches from ‘España’

by Carlos P. Garcia

Miles Davis’ 1960 landmark album Sketches from Spain, one of his most enduring composition, evoked an aspiration of music in vibrant flamenco colors that conceptually, one’s prospect of painting that music narrative, would not seemed possible. Fortunato Sevilla’s forty five-year tenure at Santo Tomas was widely recognized for his scholarship and commitment to the advancement of chemistry. Several dispatch carried the news of his conferment. But all of these is a matter of unrestricted communal knowledge. Since then, I have not read a more personal sketch in the many public tribute to him for, as with the complexity of Davis’ music narrative, I am not sure it is possible.

Without doubt Sevilla deserves tributes from those who had the privilege of either having been his students or his colleagues in the chemistry profession. Perhaps never been made, I will disclose a more thoughtful narrative of how the teacher and the mentor evolved against the backdrop of this University from this end of España Boulevard.

Almost fifty summers ago, when a young Fortunato Sevilla, III decided to enter Santo Tomas to take up chemistry, nobody expected, Sevilla least of all, that someday the University will acknowledge his leading role and contribution to the development of research and education at Santo Tomas. Yet, Professor Sevilla was for many decades one of the most celebrated teaching figures here at Santo Tomas. This recognition of his distinguished career, not only in this university which regards him to be among its most valued assets, but in the chemistry profession as a whole. Rev. Fr. Herminio V. Dagohoy, O.P., Rector of the University of Santo Tomas declared no one is more deserving of today’s recognition than Professor Sevilla. “His selfless dedication to the University is nothing short of legendary,” A litany of achievement follows:

Fortunato Sevilla, III

“Whereas, he has displayed sustained excellence in teaching, rendered distinguished administrative service and played an active role in promoting the growth of research in the University;
Whereas, he has made significant contributions as a researcher in the field of chemical sensors and biosensors,
Whereas, he has maintained a productive interest in the improvement of chemistry education in the country and
Whereas, he has rendered exemplary service contributing his expertise to the development of higher education and research in the field of chemistry in the country.”

Sevilla, the Restrained Teacher

Just as Sevilla’s students did more than forty years ago, Cynthia Uriquia-Talens and Corazon Sacdalan (Chemistry, 1981) also praised his boundless charm. Sacdalan quips, “(Sevilla) inspires all who come into his presence to stand taller—that is, to be their very best.” Talens who is presently in the doctoral program, added that even a short conversation with him consulting about the feasibility of a dissertation topic would snow balled into a full blown collaboration; a testament to his perpetual curiosity on matters of research inquiry.

Professor Rosalito De Guzman’s (BS Gen, 1970; Psychology, 1971) first encounter with Sevilla was when he joined the College of Science as a junior teaching staff in 1971. “Many professors I recall fondly come from the chemistry department who taught us to think well, were themselves unforgettable personalities.” De Guzman was appointed administrative Secretary of the College of Science (1978-1984) upon the recommendation of then Psychology department chair Prof. Angelina Ramirez and Assistant Dean Trinidad Ames. At the time of his appointment, there was a full blown rift between the Dean’s administration and the chemistry professors, who felt stung by what they viewed as unfair College policies. De Guzman recalled that Sevilla was anything but restrained in those days, he was quite vocal on the issue. De Guzman saw this as an opportunity to take time to know more the chemistry staff some of whom became close colleagues; Lilian De Jesus-Sison (Chemistry, 1968), Miroan Sy (Chemistry, 1966), Lourdes Eustaquio, Lourdes Chavez, and Susan Jardiolin (Chemistry, 1969) to name a few.

Sevilla, the Analytical Chemist

Sevilla taught mainly Analytical chemistry at the UST Graduate School. However, his teaching repertoire is deeply entrenched in Physical and Organic chemistry. Teaching undergraduate physical chemistry can be traced from Dean Mariano Pangan and Professor Estrella Rivera who taught the course before him. De Guzman’s recollection of Rivera’s teaching style, was her competence to derive formulas and the absence to inject humor in her lectures. “The class was quite insipid.” De Guzman recalled.

Rivera’s sudden demise mid-semester of 1974, during Alice Aguinaldo’s physical chemistry lecture class, left a gaping hole in the teaching roster of the department. Sevilla picked up from where Rivera left and continued to teach the course until 1983 before he left for Manchester. The early eighties was a period when physical chem became one of the most dreaded courses to chemistry majors. The number of failing students at the end of each semester is short of horrific. But it was also an era in Sevilla’s teaching career that became one of his best, turning out many bright students, many of whom went into either teaching or research. This was no doubt due to the diligence of Sevilla as a teacher.

“Sevilla was one of two who represented Santo Tomas to attend the 1969 seminar on a Molecular Approach in the Teaching of Organic Chemistry organized by Prof. Clara Y. Lim-Sylianco.” Lilian Sison (Chemistry, 1968) recollected. The seminar was intended to assist organic chemistry teachers who are in transition of teaching the course from pure memory work to a molecular orbital approach in explaining reaction mechanisms -and thus began affection to teach Organic chemistry. This incursion with organic chemistry similarly took Sevilla to teach Organic Analysis to chemistry majors. The design of the laboratory component for this coursework is purely his own. It was at this stage when organic spectroscopy, then a sprouting new field, was assimilated in the curriculum.

The Organic Chemistry Teacher’s Association (OCTA) sprout out of this 1969 seminar. Sevilla was one of the original co-founders of the organization and his contributions to OCTA, then a fledging organization have been wide and deep. From assisting in the founding of an organization that afforded teachers a venue to regularly update themselves in organic chemistry, to building a network component of chemistry educators to include Professors Lillian Sison, University of the Philippines’ Angelita Reyes and Far Eastern University’s Consorcia Mendoza-Empaynado (Chemistry, 1954), to name a few. These personalities will become key administrators in their respective universities in the years to come.

Sevilla, the Thomasian

Fortunato Sevilla, III (b. 1947) had his primary school to collegiate education at Santo Tomas, culminating with a degree in chemistry in 1968, Summa cum Laude.
A British Council scholarship afforded him to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Masters and doctoral degrees in Instrumentation and Analytical Science from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) was completed 1984 and 1987, respectively.

Unknown to most people, there is a tinge of Blue Eagle blood running in his veins. Shortly after graduation, in a chance visit at Ateneo, Sevilla was asked if he was interested to take the graduate entrance examinations, scheduled on that same day. He took the bait, and passed it, without fanfare.

In Ateneo, he established himself as one of the best students, completing all course requirements with high distinction. He did a semester of coursework before he decided to apply for a teaching stint back at Santo Tomas. He reminisced it was such a physically demanding effort considering the daily grind of traveling from Espana to Loyola Heights, whilst maintaining a regular teaching load at Santo Tomas. But all these was quite worth it, for he has high regards to the professors he was fortunate to meet: Modesto Chua, Amando Kapauan and Fr. William J. Schmidt, S.J., to namedrop a few. Short of completing the degree because of thesis research, he was particularly amused to recall his oral comprehensive examinations when his examiners ran out of questions for him and had to teasingly shoo him away.

Sevilla, the Administrator

To Sevilla’s colleagues, he had already established for himself a formidable reputation for being an effectual administrator (Assistant to the Rector for Research and Development, 2000-2002; Dean, College of Science, 2002-2008). His absolute commitment and competence with which he has unceasingly conducted every aspect of his administration, and his unflagging advocacy on behalf of the development of faculty members are hallmarks of his tenure.

“Failure to sketch him as a private persona is certainly due to the fact that he is quite reserved, even to his closest colleagues,” quips Alice Aguinaldo (Chemistry, 1976) to whom I pointed out this observation. Aguinaldo knew nothing personal about him even after six years of working side by side with him as his assistant dean in the College of Science. She added, “…it appears it is always strictly business when you’re dealing with him (Sevilla), but I think, that is just his style. In the many years that I worked with him, I never, not even once, saw him lost his cool, or raised his voice to someone.” Aguinaldo was right.

“The only opportunity we (sort of) had a peek into his personal life was when he invited me and Prof. Alice Maranon, who was then the department Chair, to drive by his home in Quezon City.” It was the night right after they visited the wake of the son of Asst. Prof. Carmen Gaerlan-Morales (Chemistry, 1962). “It was so unexpected. He appeared to be very accommodating and even showed us his bedroom…the inner Sanctum. I guess, everyone in the department was in a reflective mood, if not dazed with the unexpected demise of Morales’ son, and that could be his way to vent out his sentiments.” Aguinaldo remembered.

Sevilla, the Researcher

Sevilla’s early roots in research is attributed to his high regards for his mentors. His undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Estella Zamora (Chemistry, 1954) came to mind as he fondly remembers her. “She returned to UST with a doctoral degree from Germany. She was immensely confident and did her thing very competently”. Nevertheless, he lamented that in those days, there is scarcity of role model teachers to lure students to pursue graduate degrees. Perhaps this is the same rabbit hole he fell into and that is why it took him sixteen years to seriously take a study leave to pursue doctoral degree.

His early foray as an undergraduate thesis advisor dealt with topics that sprung out of serendipitous observations in the laboratory. Leah Tolosa (Chemistry, 1981), presently the Assistant Director for the Center for Advanced Sensor Technology Research (CAST) of the University of Maryland (Baltimore), did her undergraduate thesis with Sevilla. They examined the kinetic solvent effects on the reaction of 2,4-dinitrochlorobenzene with N-methylaniline, revealing Sevilla’s initial interest in organic chemistry. “Fortune (Sevilla) has been one of the most influential mentors in my life. The topic of my undergrad thesis still reflects on my current projects, 35 years later! It’s simply amazing.” Tolosa added. Deeply engaged, at times critical, Sevilla influenced many students which to date, amounted to roughly close to a hundred research articles collaborations.

He returned to Santo Tomas in 1986 to begin a then-unconventional life as a teacher, researcher and administrator—and in a scientific realm when Santo Tomas was hardly being treated seriously by the three rival universities. As Director of the Research Center for the Natural Sciences (1987-2000), he distinguished himself to having an eyeball on a single prize, make UST known in the national research circle. This poised to be a difficult exploit as, in those days, Santo Tomas is a bit reserved in joining national research conferences, even though there exist a confident research practice particularly in Natural Products within the campus.

Then commence a period of full participation in oral and poster presentation in national professional conferences together with a stream of co-sponsored international seminars. It was a decision that was unprecedented, which opened up university research to be known elsewhere. He delivered his promise and did not disappoint his researchers.

Much is owed to this Academician, mentor and gracious colleague who has made myriad contributions to the conservancy of our university’s great heritage in teaching and research. Professor Sevilla’s distinguished contributions to the institution he has loved and served and his “perpetual curiosity and engagement” with the world around him is forever etched in our collective imagination.