Leila with her sons Gerry, Gil & Martin | Photo courtesy of Vivian Talambiras Cruz

LEILA Benitez-McCollum, Philippine television and radio legend, passed away on April 8 due to complications from the coronavirus disease. Her niece, Vivian Talambiras Cruz, an active leader in the Fil-Am community, told the Asian Journal that she spoke with Benitez the night before she died.

Leila Benitez McCollum with her niece, Vivian Talambiras Cruz.

“She was a bit lethargic and spoke about going to the airport to go home to Pagsanjan,” Cruz shared. “She has many beautiful memories of Pagsanjan as I do, especially the times we spent at their house by the river which still stands today, a bit dilapidated but nevertheless our memories of that house live in our hearts.”

The 89-year-old icon rose to fame in the Philippines back in the 1950s as one of the hosts of the variety show “Student Canteen,” which began as a radio show and eventually transformed into a television program to discover new singers.

In a career spanning almost two decades, she was called the “First Lady of Philippine Television” and became a household name as her star continued to shine until the early 1970s.

Benitez was brought to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan eight days prior to her passing because she was unable to eat for a few days and her doctor suggested bringing her so they could check the best options for her, like a feeding tube, if it was necessary. She was tested positive of the virus shortly after being moved to the hospital from a rehabilitation clinic.

Before they ended what would be their last phone conversation, Cruz asked her if she had a special craving for food and she told me her she was tired because she hasn’t eaten and they could talk again “tomorrow” and ended with their usual exchange of “I love you.”

Leila with Vivian’s son, Francis

“Sadly, that tomorrow never came,” Cruz lamented. “Gerry (Benitez’s son) called me in the morning saying that the doctor called to say she was unresponsive and in the afternoon, he called to say she passed on. It was a blessing that she was unconscious so that she didn’t feel the pain and not be aware that she was alone at the end.”

Cruz considered her Tita Lei as her second mother. Her grandfather Cirilo and Benitez’s mother Enday were siblings.

Benitez left behind her three sons Gerry and Gil from first husband Gerardo Roses, and Martin from second husband Mervyn Simpson, and four grandchildren. She and her third husband Donald McCollum were married for 38 years, until his death in 2015.

Aside from Student Canteen, which in its heyday became the biggest daytime program of its era, Benitez also hosted a couple of television shows, including “Darigold Jamboree” and “The Leila Benitez Celebrity Hour.”

As a child growing up in Batangas, Cruz vividly remembers watching her Tita Lei in Student Canteen.

“Often times my classmates would excitedly tell me ‘Oh your Tita Leila mentioned your family in her program,’” she shared. “We spent many unforgettable moments at their Pagsanjan house by the river and their mansion in Cubao.”

Leila Benitez McCollum with her sons Gerry, Gil & Martin. | Contributed photo

Benitez, who graduated from Georgetown University, was in the United States when Martial Law was declared in 1972. She decided to stay and later landed a job as a news anchor of the Voice of America, a program under the U.S. Information Agency broadcast across the Asia Pacific Region.

Among the most precious memories Cruz treasures fondly happened in her Tita Lei and Uncle Don’s place in Manhattan, among them special holiday celebrations like Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays.

“As an adult living in New York, Tita Lei took it upon herself to take care of some of my needs. When I gave birth, it was Tita Lei and Uncle Don who picked me up from the hospital with my newborn son, Francis,” Cruz shared. “I had German measles on my first trimester and the doctor recommended abortion which I refused. I hid it from my parents but somehow when I was about to give birth they found out and my mom’s blood pressure was so high and when Tita Leila found out, she picked me up from [the] hospital.”

It didn’t end there because when Francis was baptized, Benitez also became his ninang or godmother.

“She insisted on hosting the reception at their beautiful Beresford place by Central Park. She cooked dinuguan among other dishes. She was a great cook!,” Cruz exclaimed.

There are no services scheduled at this time but the family is planning a memorial service and a celebration of her life with family and friends will be held at a later date.

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