Usually the brightest in class, Romulo Palabay was called the "walking dictionary" by his high school classmates. Teachers liked him because he always came prepared for the day’s lessons. Though he was a shy boy, he also excelled in extracurricular activities. In his senior year, he was editor-in-chief of the school paper.
Entering college as an entrance scholar at the University of the Philippines in 1968, he also took a job as student assistant to support himself.
In UP Diliman Palabay’s awareness of the many ills besetting the country became more focused as he was drawn into student activism. He joined the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines and later the UP chapter of Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and its cultural arm, Panday Sining. He organized the Progresibong Samahan sa Pangangalakal, an organization of business administration students in his home college. He also kept in touch with friends in his hometown, organizing the Youth and Student Cultural Association of La Union. He also served as La Union coordinator of the UP Special Committee on the Constitutional Convention.
Eventually he became chairman of the KM chapter in La Union. His mother recalls meetings and discussion groups being held in their house in San Fernando. She would hear their stories about government soldiers and their abusive behavior: how “they took the villagers’ goats, pigs, dogs and chickens without paying and ordered these to be cooked” (this was before martial law). Palabay and his friends organized rallies, marches, strikes and demonstrations. They staged plays in public plazas depicting the injustices and atrocities of those in power.
When President Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, Romulo was arrested in La Union together with his brother Crisanto and other activists. A third brother, Armando, arrested later, joined the two Palabay boys in detention in Camp Olivas. All three underwent torture. They were released a year later under a presidential amnesty.
Romulo and Armando went back to UP to continue their studies. After his graduation in 1974, Romy, armed with letters of recommendation from the dean of the UP College of Business Administration, went job- hunting. But without a security clearance, which the military refused to give, prospective employers had to turn him down.
In July 1974, the authorities were looking for Romulo again. Failing to find him at home, they “invited” his mother and siblings for interrogation at the PC headquarters in La Union. Meanwhile, the siblings studying in Manila were held in Camp Olivas, Pampanga, for three days of questioning.
Romulo and his wife, a nursing student, left home to move to the Cordilleras where they helped organize the Igorot people to fight against the dictatorship. It helped very much that they both had some medical knowledge; Romulo, in particular, knew how to administer acupuncture treatments and herbal medicine. With this, they were able to successfully treat some cases, which assured a warm welcome in the mountain villages for the group. Soon, the people were calling him “duktor.”
Romulo Palabay was killed in Hungduan, Ifugao, two weeks before his 23rd birthday. During a surprise attack by a team of local CHDF members, he was hit in the back of the head by a shot fired from a grenade launcher. When his family received news of his death, “we were able to get Romy’s body after paying P500 to some PC soldiers and supplying food for three days,” according to his mother, “although it took them only one day to get it and bring it to Kiangan, Ifugao.”
The remains were transported to Baguio, then to his hometown in La Union, and from there to the UP Chapel in Diliman where friends held necrological rites in his honor. But the Palabay family has not yet been able to retrieve the body of his brother Armando, who died in Abra.