It was one of those regular promenades around Sta. Rosa, Laguna, when Paolo Tantoco asked his grandfather, Bienvenido—Lolo Benny to everyone—the formula for longevity. Expecting a reply on a healthy lifestyle, he received a nugget of wisdom instead.
“I have a clean conscience. I never hurt anyone,” maintained the patriarch, who had turned 100 last April 7.
It’s been said that the way one lived determined the way one died. Last July 6, Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco, Sr. died peacefully in the hospital after a bout with pneumonia.
However, to everyone who had known him, he will never be gone. He left a lasting memory of his generosity of spirit.
Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., considered the father of Philippine luxury retail, founded the Rustan’s Group of Companies with his wife, the late Gliceria “Glecy” Rustia Tantoco. Rustan’s was a portmanteau of their surnames. After her death, Tantoco went on to expand the Rustan’s Group by introducing the ubiquitous Starbucks coffee chain and the hypermart concept through Shopwise (now under new ownership) at the start of the millennium.
In many interviews, Paolo’s father, Rico (Bienvenido Jr.), and Tantoco’s only son, would often quote Lolo Benny’s advice on his collegial management style, “You should not make your employees work for you. Instead, you should work with them.”
This ethos has seeped down to the fourth generation, which includes Danni Lopez Tiangco. “We always felt how much he had touched many lives, especially his employees, in the way he treated them. I see those traits in my mom (Maricar Lopez-Tiangco Lopez, Rustan’s Flower Shop VP for merchandising) and lola (Menchu Tantoco-Lopez),” she says.
Great-granddaughter Nikki Huang notes that more than his leadership by example, Lolo Benny’s greatness was in his unconditional love for everyone.
During this week’s wake in the Tantoco residence, Paolo, assistant vice-president for administration of Rustan’s Commercial Corporation (RCC), and wife Dina could sense the sadness of the staff who took care of Lolo Benny. They never felt that working for him was a burden. It was an honor to have served a man who was like a father to them. They told Paolo that the man who made them laugh was now gone.
‘He would call them ‘Benny’s Angels.’ In turn, they would say, ‘You are our angel with the biggest wings’
“He would call them ‘Benny’s Angels.’ In turn, they would say, ‘You are our angel with the biggest wings.’ He was grateful for their care. He never flinched from having to help when they were in need. He took care of their families,” says Paolo.
Michael “Mike” Huang, RCC’s senior vice president for development and support, looks up to his grandfather as the “gentleman of the old school,” the epitome of breeding and a person who walked the talk.
Says Mike, “He exuded an aura that commanded respect not because he was the patriarch, but because he was dignified. He always reminded us of family and to be caring for others. Respect people regardless of who they are, and you will be respected. He always prompted the boys to be perfect gentlemen.”
He recalls a store visit with his grandfather and sister when he was a little boy. Seeing the escalator, Mike excitedly rushed to play on the moving steps. Suddenly he felt Lolo Benny’s firm grip on his shoulder, which pulled him back. Mike wondered if he had done anything wrong. Lolo Benny insisted on following the rule—let the ladies walk ahead of the men.
— ‘She’s a girl. Let her go first’
It didn’t matter that the lady he was with was family, Catherine, his sister—“She’s a girl. Let her go first,” said Lolo Benny.
On foreign trips, the chivalrous Lolo Benny picked up the tab in restaurants. However, there was a caveat. The grandchildren had to dress up appropriately. The same dress code applied at home.
During a vacation in the Tantoco home in Morocco, Mike came down from his room, in a T-shirt, to join the family dinner. Lolo Benny sent him back to his room to change into a collared shirt. “We could wear casual clothes but not look sloppy,” says Mike.
To his final days, Lolo Benny observed manners in his home. Mike’s family came over Friday dinners—members of the Tantoco clan have been taking their turns to be with the patriarch in the family home, from breakfast to dinner, the past several years, perhaps as far back as immediately after the death of his wife, their Lola, in the mid-‘90s. After the meal, Mike recalls, the great-grandchildren, Kenzie, 10, and Cameron, 9, would politely ask to be excused. Lolo Benny would let them play.
“My children loved being around him. He was very affectionate,” says Mike.
The patriarch treated the spouses of his grandchildren with equal measures of love. His pet name for Mike’s wife, Kathy, was “Miss Short Hills” since she grew up in this affluent community in Essex County, New Jersey. Mike adds that the upscale The Mall at Short Hills was one of his grandfather’s favorite shopping places because it carried his favorite brands.
Back in 2011, Dina Arroyo Tantoco, RCC marketing communications head, was tasked to clean up the Arroyo residence in Boston before its sale. She wanted to stay with Lolo Benny in his New Jersey home. Though she planned to rent a car to Boston, Lolo Benny asked grandson Christopher Tantoco (son of Marilen) to drive Dina. Tantoco’s characteristic spontaneity always brought fun. They stayed in a hotel, and Lolo Benny took them shopping and to dinner. “He was such a gentleman. He didn’t want me to drive alone. He treated me as if I were his granddaughter,” says Dina.
‘Despite his having 40 great grandchildren, he made each one of us feel special’
Lolo Benny kindled that joie de vivre among his great grandchildren. Says Danni Lopez Tiangco, 25, now Messy Bessy supply chain manager, “Despite his having 40 great grandchildren, he made each one of us feel special. He was always present in our milestones.”
During summer breaks in his New Jersey home, Lolo Benny would take them to New York to watch Broadway shows and ballets and visit the museum. He also brought them to Hersheypark in Connecticut and Mystic Bay Aquarium in Pennsylvania.
On his birthdays, the entire Tantoco clan would bond for five to seven days in such destinations as Bohol, Legazpi, Boracay, and Palawan, with clan activities such as a mini-Olympics and relay races.
“In his last years, he would recount his youth to us,” says Danni. “He loved to sing folk songs such as Leron, Leron Sinta. He was so animated.”
Like most family members, Danni has followed his example of treating people with equal respect. “Nobody is too small or too big. He was grateful for everyone in his life,” says Danni.
Nikki Huang, 21, a Boston University major in sociology, feels blessed to have spent Sundays bonding with her great-grandfather, when he would sometimes amuse them with off-color jokes.
‘His zest for life, even in the darkest times of this pandemic, showed us a silver lining—happiness and family’
“His zest for life, even in the darkest times of this pandemic, showed us a silver lining—happiness and family,” says Nikki.
Lolo Benny brought Nikki and her sister Isabel to their first ballet, Le Corsaire, performed by American Ballet Theater at the Lincoln Center in New York.
“Lolo Benny and Lola (Glecy) cultivated in us the appreciation for the arts. It was incredible for us to have experienced dance at its finest,” recalls Nikki.
He was supportive of the sisters’ pursuit of ballet. In her tween years, Nikki took up ballet at Steps Dance Studio but realized that she no longer had the heart for it.
Yet, for Lolo Benny’s 91st birthday, she and her sister performed a jazz number, set to Beyonce’s Fever.
“He made me feel like a star,” says Nikki, this despite the fact that Isabel was more passionate about dancing. “He would ask, ‘When are you dancing again?’ I am more interested in academics.”
Photographs of her great-grandparents meeting international luxury brand principals, celebrities, and stories about how they applied Western ideas in the Philippine context, have left an impact on Nikki. Living abroad made her appreciate and hold up her great-grandfather as an example of a global citizen. “Think global, but love local. He instilled that wherever you were, never forget where you came from and where you will return.”
Nicole Tantoco de los Reyes and her twin Camille, now 30, are the eldest of the fourth Tantoco generation. One of Nicole’s most unforgettable experiences was getting a handwritten note from Lolo Benny after she won a poetry writing contest. He would make time for Nicole; he would encourage her to develop her literary skill, or would sit in the front pew at her wedding in 2018 even in his fragile age.
When Nicole announced that she was pregnant, he shook hands with her husband, Miko, and said, “I want to officially welcome you to my family.”
Lolo Benny was amazed when the Tantoco clan was blessed with a fifth-generation birth. Nicole gave birth to Yani. On Yani’s first birthday last year, Lolo Benny wanted to celebrate the milestone by getting up from his wheelchair and hand over his gift to her.
“He remembered everybody’s name and tracked down the stories of each one of the grandchildren, their spouses and great grandchildren. We didn’t expect that any more because of his age. Yet, he still wanted to be there with all of us.”