15 July, 2024

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From Little Things Big Things Grow – The Anthonians Who Excelled Beyond Excellence 

By Bernard VanCuylenburg and Sisira Weragoda

Prologue

As an introduction to the subject of this article I had to choose a title which nails it all in just one line. It is the story of an academic miracle which emanated from a simple school in its infancy, St. Anthony’s College Katugastota, by a group of students who raised the bar of achievement and excellence in the prestigious London Matriculation Examination in 1934, with a 100% pass rate THUS OBTAINING THE BEST RESULTS IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE. It was a path breaking year for the College and a validation of the school’s excellence. Twelve students sat the examination that year of whom six obtained first division passes, and six obtained second division passes. Their names which should be emblazoned in letters of gold in the field of education, will be mentioned in this article. Paraphrasing the title of the book by Rubeih Murray James, we should “Carve their names with pride”.

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. And from the small island of Ceylon, twelve students competing with some of the best brains in the British Empire set a record breaking standard of excellence. As news of their singular stellar academic achievement was made public in the halls of learning all around the British Empire, these students acquired the reputation of ‘Giant Killers!’ To set some perspective to their story which also entails a fair share of drama as will be seen later, a brief reference to the early history of St. Anthony’s College is worth mentioning.

In The Beginning

It was Father Felice Zoppi a Franciscan friar from the Chinese missionary field who with untiring zeal opened a school for boys and one for girls in the house where he resided, in the year 1854. Mr. Van Twest was the Head Teacher of the boys school. That was the genesis of Saint Anthony’s College in Kandy. Constraints of space and time do not permit a detailed account of the school begun by Father Zoppi in this article, and we fast forward the clock to the year 1927. It was the year in which the plague hit Kandy, and the year in which Bishop Bede Beekmeyer purchased the old “Dunuwille Walauwa” in Katugastota, the present premises where the College stands today.

Towards the end of 1927 Reverend Father Lawrence Hyde obtained permission from the Bishop to shift the junior boarders from Kandy to Katugastota. On the 16th of January 1928 the junior boarders were installed at Katugastota. Two lads from the Kandy school joined the classes in Katugastota to share in the spirit of the new St. Anthonys which, like the bird in Egyptian mythology that burnt itself on the pyre and arose phoenix-like from the ashes every five hundred years, heralded a new beginning for the College.

During the first few years the school held classes from the Kindergarten up to the Cambridge Junior with a staff of twelve, gradually increasing the range to the London Matriculation Examination and an Inter-Arts Form. It was Father Lawrence Hyde the Principal who in 1929 was responsible for the first set of open classrooms erected alongside the mighty Mahaveli, and these classrooms today house the Primary School of the College. Father Hyde built a formidable team of pioneers  – they were Mr. P.B.A. Weerakoon, Brother Columban Macky, Brother Joseph, Brother Lysons, and Brother Timothy. Reverend Father D.D. Barsenbach was appointed Director of Boarders in 1937 and classes were started for Boarders and others who wished to come over from Kandy.

However it was not a case of “all work and no play”.There were cricket matches between the lads from Kandy and their rivals in Katugastota, and often it was the latter team that was victorious. From 1936 to 1938 more than half of the players in the cricket team were from the Katugastota school who came first in the under 16 division and later in the 1st division. They also outdid their counterparts from Kandy in the field of athletics. The lads from Katugastota belonged to the Maroon House while those from Kandy belonged to the Light Blue and Double Blue House.

It was here that twelve conscientious, diligent hardworking students in 1934 set the world –  or rather –  The British Empire alight, bringing glory to themselves and the College by obtaining the best results in the London Matriculation Examination scoring a pass rate of 100%. These are their names:

First division passes: K.S. Gunaratne, T.B. Naranpanawe, W.H. Navaratne, T. Tikiribanda Illangaratna, S.S. Vedanayagam, P. Roberts.

Second Division: P.J.I. Thistle, J.J. Peries, C.E. Offen, H.W. Pereira, T. Arthur, R.J.H. Reeves.

Cometh The Hour Cometh The Man 

When the results of the Examination were announced, it was the finest hour in the life of the new College. The reputation of the school soared on eagle’s wings, and for a long time they basked in their seasons in the sun, and walked in valleys of green. The Man of the Hour responsible for this record breaking result and to whom many accolades and plaudits are due was the legendary Mr. P.B.A.Weerakoon (Mr PBA Weerakoon was elected to the Parliament in 1956 and appointed to the Deputy Minister Education till end of 1959). Throughout the years, many tributes have been paid to Teachers. To name a few, Alexander the Great once said “I am indebted to my Father for living, but to my Teacher for living well.” He should know because his teacher in philosophy, law and politics was none other than Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher and Polymath. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk the first President of Turkey said “A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the world for others”. Maria Montessori the Italian Physician and Educator founder of the Kindergarten School system which builds on the way for children to learn naturally, remarked” The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say “The children are now working as if I did not exist!”

It was Guy Kawasaki the American Marketing Specialist and Author who wrote “If you have to put someone on a pedestal, put a Teacher”. There is a Japanese proverb which sums up a teachers worth beautifully  – quote -“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher”.

Mr. P.B.A. Weerakoon to whom the phrases quoted above could apply admirably, was a teacher who to this day evokes the deepest respect and admiration and deserves to be placed on the highest pedestal. He was a  special teacher who saw “tomorrow” in the eyes of every child. Mr.Weerakoon had the reputation of not just teaching, but by acting like a compass which activated the magnets of curiosity and knowledge in his pupils. He believed that all his students could excel, and learning was not limited to classroom walls. Whatever he wrote on the blackboard of life in a classroom could never be erased. He was not just a teacher who supplied facts and taught a class, but a special kind of teacher in whose presence students became different people. Please pardon the pun, but without teachers like Mr.Weerakoon life would have no class !

However, following the success by these students, dark clouds gathered on the horizon and there were negative forces at work, which for awhile threatened to sow the seeds of despair. The Board of Examiners in England insinuated that the results obtained by these students could have been due to

some form of cheating or malpractice. Some of them surmised that it was impossible to obtain such a result without fraudulence. When the news was conveyed to Father Lawrence Hyde the Principal and Mr. Weerakoon, it was the proverbial body blow, and for awhile they were at a loss as to how they could deal with this ugly monster of jealousy and maybe bias which had reared its ugly head.

But the Members of the Board of Examiners in Britain had not reckoned with Mr. Weerakoon who at the time was a man in his prime, of solid physique and strength. But more than that, he was a man of stronger spirit and character with a sound code of ethics, decency and fair play with high principles of honour, civility of manner, and refinement. Their accusation awoke the lion in him and he threw down the gauntlet to the Board requesting them to reset the examination adding the ‘coup de grace’ when he told them that once the examination papers were reset, he would send a new class of students to sit the exam with the guarantee that they would obtain better results than the students who obtained the record breaking results in the first exam !! Stunned at this challenge to which they had no answer, the Board of Examiners were forced to eat humble pie and the original examination results were upheld. It seemed that in the words of Lord Tennyson, Mr. Weerakoon was determined “to strive to find and not to yield”.

Epilogue

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. The humble beginnings of Saint Anthony’s College in 1854, and the relocation of the college to Katugastota in1928 were the genesis of the school which later earned the reputation of being one of the leading educational institutions in the island. This is the beloved Alma Mater we love so well. The College on the hill still stands today in majesty as she has for over 150 years while the mighty Mahaveli meanders along. If those walls could talk, to what would they testify ? What could they tell you of things they have witnessed and heard ? Only memories of the thousands of students, who over the years have passed through her hallowed portals…..memories that whisper in the silence………

One of the star students Tikiri Banda Illangaratna later became a successful Politician and was a Minister of Trade. W.H. Navaratne and T.B. Naranpanawe became Divisional Revenue Officers. 

This article was written over a period of time mostly at night when the world slept. Finding the appropriate words to pay tribute to these students who excelled beyond the bounds of excellence and then follow it through with a tribute to the Teacher who was responsible for this unique accomplishment, was not easy through the sights and sounds of the day. It all came together in the stygian darkness of some long nights which engulfed me in waves of nostalgia for the school we love. Although a time span of 88 years divides us, We conclude with this tribute to Mr.Weerakoon and his gallant band of students who in the year 1934 brought glory to the college and credit to themselves:

Softly the leaves of memory fall

Gently we gather and treasure them all

Some may forget now that you are gone

But Anthonians will remember – no matter how long.”

It is hard to forget those, who gave us so much to remember.

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    Enjoyed reading this article.
    No doubt that there are a lot of very talented people in and from Sri Lanka.
    The problem is the crooks that dominate the political scene; not all of them but most of them.

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