Tribute: Service above self
K. J. Leo de Silva
When the Class of '71 of S. Thomas' College met this year we placed
high priority on gathering and sharing information on our beloved
teachers particularly to pay tribute to them. Thus, this becomes the
very first of a series on "Tribute to Teachers of STC."
I can only think of one way to begin this tribute; that is by saying
that to K. J. Leo De Silva who is 83 years now, teaching was not a mere
profession but a passion, for thousands of Thomians he laid solid
foundations not only for education but also for life; his was a life
dedicated to service.
Leo de Silva was born on November 2, 1924 at Seeduwa; he had his
primary education at the Seeduwa Methodist School and his secondary
education at St. Mary's College, Negombo.
On completion of his secondary education he was enrolled at the
Teacher Training College, Peradeniya, and after successfully completing
the three and a half year training program he joined the Boys' High
School at Aluthgama (now known as Aluthgama Vidyalaya) where he served
for 18 months and thereafter he moved to Christ Church School, Dehiwala
where he served as a teacher for about eight years.
During this time his reputation as a great teacher and effective
disciplinarian spread to other schools in the area, and for our good
fortune, the Warden at S. Thomas' College at the time was Rev. Canon R.
S. de Saram, who was always head hunting for good teachers and he was
quick to send an invitation to Mr. de Silva to join STC which he
In 1956, he joined the lower school at which time Rev. Barnabas was
the Head Master; it is important to place on record that Rev de Saram
and Rev. Barnabas had no hesitation in getting the best teachers for the
college; their ultimate goal was to provide the students with a quality
Leo de Silva was an exceptional teacher moulding young children into
true Thomians by giving them a solid foundation.
He taught forms two, three, four, five and six. He taught me in Lower
3rd, and of course we were too small to remember stories or anecdotes of
his teaching career but even today, we all feel the impact he has made
on our lives; he was someone who really understood the importance of
primary education and it was on this foundation he laid that eventually
true 'Thomianism' was built. Mr. de Silva sowed the seeds of the true
Thomian spirit by creating traditions which are to this day unique to
The spirit of Thomians was primarily about utmost love and respect
for the school; however, Mr de Silva wove kindness, compassion and care
into that spirit and gave birth to an unparalleled spirit.
His contribution to our alma mater is therefore immense, I still can
picture this personality; he was stocky in his built.
My vision of him from my childhood is that of a fearful person; he
wore white trousers and long sleeved white shirts, occasionally with a
tie, he carried a big black brief case on one hand and a long black
umbrella on the other; we never knew what he carried in that big bag,
but I am sure that it was knowledge that filled the mysterious brief
At the same time he was a strict as well as an effective
disciplinarian; indeed we all feared him, good deeds were rewarded but
wrong deeds never went unpunished. I can still recall how he would hold
our trousers by the waistband right above the naval with one hand and
lift us effortlessly.
That 'lift' was punishment enough for us to correct ourselves. We had
no opportunity to complain about this, our parents would not hear of it,
and even if parents came to school on a punishment issue, he spoke to
them with courtesy and kindness that parents went back without carrying
any ill thoughts of Mr. de Silva.
His actions in punishing us were purely on disciplinary grounds and I
can vouch that he never had any sadistic pleasure in punishing anyone,
and that is where he differs from today's teachers.
Unlike the present day teachers, teachers of yesterday such as Mr. de
Silva had neither domestic nor social pressures which frustrated them,
so it was not such external pressures that led to his punishing us,
perhaps that is why his efforts to discipline us had very positive
impacts on our lives. That is the reason that today the fear we had for
him as children has turned into awe.
Something a very few of my fellow Thomians know is the fact that in
1961 he contested at the local government elections for the Katunayake -
Seeduwa Town Council; recently when I asked him the reason for wanting
to contest, snap came the answer; "I hate politicians and I hate
politics". He elaborated it further by adding that even at that time
there was thuggery and intimidation of people, bribery and corruption
and social vices such as people brewing illicit liquor.
Leo de Silva being service minded knew that none of the recognised
political parties could give solutions to the problems which people had
in that context; so he decided to run for elections as an independent
candidate under the symbol 'the umbrella' (of course), but how did he
win? During those years, schoolteachers were held in high regard, and he
being a teacher at S. Thomas' College gained him higher regard from the
people, but I think he won because he sincerely wanted to serve the
So how did he find the time to serve the people while being a teacher
is the million dollar question. According to Mr. de Silva, the Warden
did not like him being elected to the town council; yet he was tolerant,
and Mr. de Silva never forgot or faltered his duties as a teacher.
During his three years at the council he balanced both his
professions remarkably well. School hours during this time were from
8.05 am to 3.05 pm with a 40 minute lunch break. He performed his duties
in the council in the evenings on week days.
But on Wednesdays when the school closed at 12.41 pm he would wrap up
his school work by 1 pm and would go to attend to the work at the
council, and he was granted leave to attend Council meetings and other
The warden was compelled to do so, as Mr. de Silva did not neglect
his duties. Out of his 49 years of service as a teacher, he served STC
for over 38 years.
He served under wardens Rev. Canon R. S. de Saram, C. H. Davidson, S
J Anandanayagam, Rev. A. J. C. Selvaratnam, M. L. C. Ilangakoon and
Neville de Alwis. He rose to the position of Head Master, Primary School
and about six years prior to retirement in 1994 became the Head Master
of Middle School as well.
I always had his good wishes at many points in my political career.
But what impressed me most was when I went to his house during the last
local government elections how he recognised me, I was wondering as I
chatted with him whether he would even know me, for he was 82 years. But
he turned to his wife and said "Do you know who this is? This is D. S.
Gunasekera's brother's son". And he was absolutely right.
It was amazing how well he remembered not only who I was but whose
who as well.
It showed me that not only did he have a great memory, but also that
he cared to remember, and of course for someone as committed as he was
to service, caring was the crux of everything he delivered. Mr. Leo de
Silva is a pillar of S. Thomas' College.
His contribution was not confined to the primary school. It did not
matter whether he taught us or not, his presence was felt throughout the
He has influenced our lives so much that we can keep our heads up and
speak without any fear in any context; of him I think of as someone with
great charisma who has given us character and courage to face the world,
and that is why even after 21 years of leaving the College we still
speak of him with love and respect, I wish him good health and choicest
blessings for a peaceful retired life.