Our indirect links to Silliman date back to the late 1960s when Dr Cicero Calderon was the university president. Two very close hometown friends spent part of their young lives on campus; one completed his math degree there but sought a wife in the University of the Philippines (UP), and the other chose to teach there after finishing his engineering course at UP because he fell in love with and married a daughter of Dr Calderon.
We still have to make true a long-time wish of visiting Dumaguete (and Silliman, of course) to check our friends' tales about these friendly, provincial and conservative places. Through all the years, Dumaguete seems not to have lost yet the come-on charm of being a "City of Gentle People."
Last April, we had another indirect contact with Silliman through a team of student researchers from the Ramon Teves Pastor Memorial Dumaguete Science High School. They screened marine algae for potential anti-cancer compounds under the guidance of scientists from the Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences.
That tells us that the school has gone a long way from the industrial institute founded by Dr. Horace B. Silliman of Cohoes, New York with a grant of $20,000 through the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions one hundred and eight years ago. Indeed, the university webpage informs of different academic programs implemented by ten colleges, three schools and two institutes today.
Source: Devins, J.B. (1905)
The institute was the first Protestant mission boarding-school established in the country. "The location [Dumaguete] is the most healthful and beautiful that I saw in the Philippines," the Rev. Arthur J. Brown, D.D. wrote the board in 1901. "The land rises gently from a peebly beach to a noble mountain range. The lower levels are covered with plantations of tobacco and sugar cane, higher slopes with hemp, and the summits of the mountains with heavy forests of hard woods. Across the clear water, the islands of Seguyor [Siquijor] and Cebu are seen, and farther away, but in plane view are the outlines of Bohol and Mindanao." If we stand where Dr Brown surveyed the landscape, we wonder what we would see today.
Dumaguete was chosen as the institute site because of "its accessibility by a large population," "the absence of competing schools," and "the friendliness and the intelligence of the officials and people." At the time, the parish had only about 12,000 people and Oriental Negros less that 100,000 but it is accessible from the "populous islands of Cebu and Bohol."
Three weeks after it opened on August 28, 1901, there were thirty-two "fine looking boys," who were very striking in their white suits and red sashes during the presentation. This 'striking' picture can be seen today when graduates don white robes over red shirts/dresses during commencement exercises. We know what's the red in the national flag, but what could red mean to a Sillimanian?
For some reasons that included mindset about manual labor, making the institute an industrial school was quite difficult at the start. The curriculum though was considered excellent as it was modelled after the best mission schools in India. It was "divided into a Middle Department and a High School, with electives in drawing, botany, natural history, book-keeping , and short-hand" with the Bible taught daily.
The mission board also found a need to put up a hospital in Dumaguete, and with $1,200 diverted from missionary work, they erected a small hospital. According to John B. Devins, Oriental Negros had at that time a population of 150,000 attended to only by an Army surgeon, a Filipino doctor and an American missionary.
Source: Devins, J.B. (1905).
"In November 1903," Devins wrote, "the Institute and Hospital buildings were dedicated. The exercises were interesting, with tall palm trees waving above the visitors who had come from the United States, England, Ireland, Spain, China, Canada, Russia, as well as other provinces in the Philippines. The decorations of palm leaves and Japanese lanterns were pretty. The Governor of the province delivered an address, and the presidente of the city also spoke, closing his address with these words: 'Let us do all we can to help these people who have come over here to do this great work.'"
On that day, two boys were selected from the institute to go to the United States for an education. Silliman records may tell us who these were, and what they did when they came back.
A quarter of a century after its founding, Silliman Institute transformed greatly as gleaned from Frank Carpenter's account in 1926. He recalled that the mission board "pays the salaries of the American members of the faculty. Friends of the school in America provided most of the land and many of the buildings. The latter include dormitories for boys and girls, an assembly hall seating six hundred people, a hospital, a well-equipped science building, and a library containing more than eight thousand volumes. Part of its forty acres of ground is given over to an athletic field with a fine track and one of the best baseball diamonds in the Philippines. ... In the buildings of the industrial department there are shops in which the students learn such trades as wood-working, plumbing, automobile repairing and printing. The school catalogue ... printed by the students of this department ... shows an enrolment of seven hundred and fifty boys and girls from all parts of the Philippines, ranging from third-grade primary pupils to students taking college courses. The high school department has the largest number."
They also had an annual cultural event at that time. "[O]ne of the most remarkable features of Silliman is the Shakespearean play given every year in an open-air amphitheatre," wrote Carpenter. "This year , "Midsummer Night's Dream" was the play and it proved a great success. So far the student actors have put on "Julius Caesar," "Hamlet," "As You Like It," "Othello," and "Twelfth Night." Finding Shakespeare rendered in English by Moros, Visayans, and Tagalogs away out here in the midst of the Pacific is one of the surprises of my trip."
We know about the annual writers workshop run by the noted couple, fictionists and poets Edilberto (when he was still alive) and Edith (National Artist) Tiempo, and the month-long city anniversary fiesta for the past 61 years every November, but we have yet to read if the annual Shakespearean event has survived. Each year, one would hear an update on Dumaguete's citylife and Silliman's gentility from select neophyte and veteran writers who attend this workshop.
Silliman University is located on the beach. A long time ago, it was just "about five minutes' walk from the central part of town." We wonder how long that walk would be today if there are pleasant surprises along the way.