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DateLine Sunday, 30 September 2007

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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 accepted.

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 education.

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 College.

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 case.

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 people.

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 important meetings.

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 College.

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.

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