Joseph Ocol: Former whistle-blower now producing chess champs

'Chess is like life. Every move you make has a consequence,' says Teacher Ocol, who, decades ago, exposed irregularities in the 1998 Philippine Centennial Expo project in Clark

Chay F. Hofileña

Published: 2:0 AM August 9, 2016

Updated: 5:12 AM August 9, 2016

MANILA, Philippines – From whistle-blower in the Philippines to teacher who has produced chess champions in Chicago.

Over a decade ago, Joseph Ocol was running scared for his life. Then head executive assistant to former Clark Development Corporation president and chief executive officer Romeo David, Ocol spoke up about irregularities he saw in connection with the 1998 Philippine Centennial Expo project in Clark.

He named names in a story published in 1999 by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. That story revealed, among others, how contractors of the Centennial project were asked to make substantial contributions to the campaign of Lakas presidential aspirants at the time – Jose de Venecia Jr and former defense chief Renato de Villa.

The revelations led to investigations by the Senate blue ribbon committee, and Ocol was placed under the Witness Protection Program by then Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

“It’s always duty and love of country” that made him become a whistle-blower, Ocol said. But unfortunately, government support was inadequate.

Given a monthly allowance of only P5,000 and being unable to find a job – no one was willing to hire someone identified with political controversy – Ocol said he had to leave the country not long after.

An engineer, he eventually found his way to the United States to start a new life. He obtained American citizenship, and became a nurse aide, before obtaining the required certification to become a math teacher and chess coach.

COMPETITION. Students from all over the US compete in the national elementary schools chess tournament in Nashville, Tennessee on April 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of Joseph Ocol

He taught at the John Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago, where one of his students was shot dead after school by suspected gang members. This prompted him to think of out-of-the-box solutions to the drug problem plaguing the westside of Chicago – “one of the most challenging areas when it comes to crime, drugs, gangs,” he said.

More than 90% of the students belong to families below poverty-level, and many of them, he found, went to school because of the meals provided for free. They either had no parents or had parents without jobs. Many came from dysfunctional families who had drug dependents, drug-dealers, or users. But there was a future waiting for them.

Ocol rewarded students who were willing to spare even just 15 minutes after class to learn and play chess. He got 8 at the start – they fell for the 100 points he offered to pass his math class.

He wanted them to learn critical thinking. He told his students there was a correlation between math and chess – chess can be a tool for critical thinking; it is not just a game, it is life.

“Every move you make has a consequence,” he said, drawing clear parallelisms between chess and life. He also told his students that chess teaches you to be gracious in defeat and magnanimous in victory.

“Just like in chess, there are failures. Losing is learning….Losing is a chance to strengthen yourself. There are failures in life that can strengthen you…that is why it is important to make the right decisions in life,” he said.

In time, he grew his team of 8 to 65. In time, too, their scores in math went up. Before long, he was able to produce champs in state and national competitions.

Despite the success, controversy tailed Ocol. On April 1, the Chicago Teachers Union, the 3rd biggest union in the United States, staged a one-day picket to protest the absence of funds for after-school programs in public schools. His own chess program was affected.

But Ocol chose to cross the picket line to be with his students at the Earle STEM Elementary School in Englewood, which was described as “one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.”

Made to choose between the union and his kids, he said he chose his kids. “My loyalty to the union ends where my dedication to my students begins,” he said, paraphrasing former Philippine President Manuel Quezon’s “My loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins.”

APPLAUSE. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (to Joseph Ocol's left) recognizes winning students in City Hall on June 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of Joseph Ocol

He was consequently expelled from the union, but is not one bit bothered. Three weeks after the strike, his kids won as national champions. The team was honored in City Hall last June.

Visiting here, Ocol hopes to replicate his success with under-privileged students in the Philippines.

In the fight against drugs here, Ocol said, what President Rodrigo Duterte has begun is a “giant and good start.” Drugs, he said, “is about money and greed,” and education plays a key role in the fight against drugs.

“I want to continue my mission here in whatever way I can,” he declared. –