By S.Sivathasan –
A College celebrating her 190th Anniversary
To have studied at St. John’s and particularly in the fifties, may now be deemed a privilege and a rare one indeed. For the students of those years there was behind them a proud history of a hundred and twenty five years, a cherished heritage. It was in 1948 that the Anniversary was celebrated in a way that left indelible memories. I yet have a vivid recollection of all events of the three day celebrations organized with efficiency worthy of a great College. To match her history was a wealth of traditions built over the years.
For a school to earn a name and to spread her fame the quality of the teachers counts for much. Perhaps the single factor with the highest leverage. Successive Principals had displayed a remarkable capability in identifying talent and teaching ability in the selection of staff members. During my time most of the senior teachers came from the selection of Rev. Henry Peto, Principal from 1920 to 1940. He was liked and respected by staff and students alike and is said to have enforced strict discipline. Seeking to emulate the Principal were the teachers. Venturing to follow their high standards and moving in step was the student community. In the student body itself, in dress, deportment and character the seniors set the pace for the impressionable young. The final product displayed a polish, making them stand out distinctively. Academic performance seen through the prism of results at public exams and inter school competitions, enhanced further the image of the College.
Rev. J.T. Arulanantham was a worthy successor to the long line of British Principals that the College had from 1823 onwards. He had the advantage of inheriting a talented staff and had the sagacity to manage them with acceptance and thus retaining their services. He too recruited many teachers of eminence. In the late forties and early fifties quite a few were taken from Kerala for the Science stream. Their standard of teaching was of the highest. One among them appointed in 1947 was Mr. Devadasan who taught chemistry. He was reputed to be one of the best in the country at that time. Mr. R. Panuthevan appointed in 1954 to the Arts stream was one among the best of the Ceylonese recruits. He broadened the horizons of the students and produced excellent results. Several years after leaving College, he told me JT and PT Mathai were not just Principals, they were super, super Principals. An absolutely correct estimate. In administration they complemented each other like Nehru and Patel.
An outstanding teacher of English and Maths for nearly thirty years, a Vice Principal for four years and a Principal for another two years was Mr. P.T Mathai from Kerala. The College was privileged and the students were fortunate to have had his services. He touched nothing which he didn’t accomplish with perfection. With thorough self-discipline, he transmitted the same throughout the College. His commitment to duty and dedication to the College were supreme and these made him a lodestar to the staff and students. His year of retirement 1959 saw St. John’s sending the largest number up to that time. JT’s retirement in 1957 also saw the largest up to that year. Their achievements were a perfect tribute to their untiring effort. Strange enough they never congratulated themselves on their performance. This was self-effacement.
As good as the Principals were teachers at all grades. A quality characteristic of them was devotion to the College and dedication to their profession. Many of them made a lasting impression on their pupils. Mr. Thambithurai was Head Master when I was in the fifth standard and moved up as I went up. He dinned into us that we should not take anything for granted but should question the why and wherefore of everything. The ideal he placed before us was Socrates. He would also cite Isaac Newton whose discovery of the law of gravity was sparked by the sight of an apple falling. What will you people do? Run to pick up and eat. A teacher who can be credited with versatility and a natural flare for clear exposition was Mrs. D.C. Arulanantham. She derived them from her intellect. In the Cambridge Senior she came first in the Island among girls. Mr. Sivaguru who came first among boys was also on the staff for some time.
In demarcating the field of study with futuristic scope, JT had a vision. His choice fell correctly on Science. His predecessor Peto was a Classics scholar from Oxford. My Father the first Hindu to be recruited, was to advance Latin rather than his other subjects Tamil and English. In the twenties and thirties and partly in the forties it was all important. To him leading a good life with a grounding in literature was fundamental. Correct idealistically but not appropriate to changing world realities. To JT good living had to precede a good life. He foresaw the changing pattern of employment avenues and his priority was science. It manifested in a fine well equipped Science Block built around 1943. It owed its architectural beauty to Mr. P.C Gaussen, the Vice Principal, a Britisher. He left College in 1946 and was succeeded by Mr. Sivapragasam who introduced us to science. The experiments were interesting and still better were his humorous stories. A senior teacher with long association in the Botany department was Mr. E.M. Ponnuthurai. His contribution to the College was great and varied. Recruitment of good teachers followed and within a decade results showed the Principal’s wisdom. In 1954 the College sent 11 students for Medicine, coming bracketed first with Royal.
With me and several of my classmates – Third Form C of 1952 stands out in our memory. Three teachers made a lasting impression. Mr. T Jeyasingham was excellent in teaching science. Mr. EA Champion later Dr. led us through English at an important stage when we were getting on to spoken English. He plunged us into a debate on the hero in Julius Caesar and we argued for two periods. With that, fear of the spoken word vanished. Mr. S.S. Kathiravelu was very good in imparting knowledge of Tamil. By year end he said that when he saw the Sixth Form Tamil question paper he found that we had reached that level. So clear was his instruction and we had taken it in our stride. Such a class of 35 counted over 20 going to the University of whom 5 were Doctors, 4 were Engineers, 2 in the Administrative Service, 2 in the Foreign Service and 1 a Professor of Mathematics. They certainly owe a debt to the College. Once a teacher told us in class that our’s was rated the best in the College. What a keen observation by the staff.
It is said that a tree is known by its best fruits. Those who excelled in studies and sports, sustained that tempo in later life, achieved eminence and brought honour to the College. Foremost in this respect was Prof. C. Suntharalingam. The College can count a vast number who distinguished themselves in a range of coveted fields. Now a very large number could be identified in the diaspora in very many countries. In and about 1982, at the same point of time, Jaffna had a multitude of Heads of Institutions. Vice Chancellor Prof. S. Vithiananthan, Registrar K.C. Logeswaran, Government Agent Dr. D. Nesiah, District Manager Bank of Ceylon, Regional Manager People’s Bank, Regional Manager CTB, Medical Superintendent, Chief Engineer Highways, Assistant Commissioner Marketing and the Deputy Director Planning at the Kachcheri. Mr. V. Yogeswaran MP for Jaffna too was an old pupil. At the national level there were Heads of Departments. Four old boys consummated their career as Ministry Secretaries.
At all times the College enjoyed a high reputation for Cricket, Football and Athletics. In the thirties Mr. RR Scott was a legend for his all-round prowess. In the fifties four stood out for their achievements. Major General E. Thevanayagam, Mr. D. Canaganayagam, Mr. S.K. Mahalingam and Dr. M.B.J. Tissainayagam. In the sixties Dr. Theivendram enjoyed a similar reputation. Sports events were always arranged with great care. The first discipline was punctuality which was treated as an index of efficiency. Prize Giving was always targeted for clock-work precision. An important item in the athletics meet was tea and most of the bites for visitors were made for several decades in teachers’ homes at their own expense. It was a labour of love towards the College and helped to strengthen their attachment. The best year in cricket was 1951, when all colleges were defeated by an innings though the final one was lost to Central. The best performance in Athletics was in 1952. In football the best match was with Kokuvil Hindu, the JSSA Champions in 1952, but defeated by St. John’s. What accounts for this? In all three fields the teams were coached by strict disciplinarians. The presence of teachers at all sports events boosted the morale of participants.
From 1959 when Mr. P.T. Mathai retired to this day, a fine balance is being maintained between discipline and student rights. In this regard the Principal’s character matters much, yet institutional memory too pervades. The immediate successor was Mr. A.W. Rajasekaram, who faced a formidable task on the financial front because of the Schools takeover in January 1961. The challenge became stronger still with societal diffidence and negative thinking. Those of a positive frame triumphed. Assistance from funding institutions, OBA Jaffna, OBA South Sri Lanka, the diaspora, mobilization effort of successive Principals and staff and prudent financial management placed the College on a sound footing. Success spread over half a century bespeaks relentlessness. Winning the Best Environment Friendly School in the All Island Excellence Award 2012, was no mean achievement.
Succeeding AWR was Mr. K. Pooranampillai. With his eye catching performance as Principal of Hartley College, Point Pedro, he was a clear choice for the management to make. With high principles and character, his personality left its mark. He was ably assisted by the amiable and respected Vice Principal Mr. J.T. Chelliah. When Mr. C.E. Anandarajan was appointed Co-Vice Principal it was known that he was being groomed to succeed KP. His tenure was marked by consolidation and steady progress. With vision and meticulous oversight on the work of all teachers and performance of students, he was seen by Jaffna as taking the College to great heights. After the turmoil from mid-1983 his energy was taxed to the maximum and he also emerged as a leader in society. He feared neither the military nor the police and rendered invaluable service to youth in travail. This was irksome to those who moved him away. His contribution was much valued and his demise was a loss to the College and to the community.
He was succeeded by Mr. T. Gunaseelan in very difficult times. He was pleasant at all times and affable. With explosions all round and some very close to his residence, his health suffered and he had to retire prematurely. Destiny brought Dr. E.S. Thevasahayam from Colombo to Jaffna. A former Teacher at St. John’s who later joined the UN offered his services at this critical time. To those who feared his safety he said, how can I remain in Colombo when my services are most needed at College. Through troubled times he steered the College with sagacity. In the IPKF onslaught the College was damaged and two wings of the Science Lab. were destroyed. He commenced work on a large three storied one and finished about 40% of the work before he left for Colombo. It was left to his successor Mr. S. Thanapalan to complete it years later.
The President of Sri Lanka H.E. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga converted the destructive nineties the most productive decade for St. John’s. A grant of Rs. Three million so graciously made by her in 1997, enabled the completion of the Science Laboratory in 1998 in time for the 175th Anniversary in May of that year. It also set the pace for more funds to flow in. A generous grant of Rs. Twelve million made by the Ambassador for Norway HE Mr. Jon Westborg through NORAD gave the College a new imposing Administrative Block. The building was declared open in 2000 May, by the Ambassador at an impressive ceremony. Incorporated in it was a Computer Unit for which Dr. Srikanthi Handy made a valuable contribution in memory of her Father Dr. GR Handy an illustrious old pupil of the College. The Block was beautifully designed by Navin Gooneratne a reputed Architect in Colombo. In this project he was ably assisted by his assistant a lady and both of them took great pains to do a perfect job. The architecture became the template for two more buildings.
Principal S. Thanapalan had the good fortune of building four impressive blocks and completing one. They were all done within a span of seven years. He had the temperament for shouldering a heavy load without showing any strain in an environment of the most unsettled times. In the programme of construction he had the devoted services of two senior engineers from the Buildings Department. Both of them were old boys and they made an honorary contribution by way of their expertise.
The Principal also had the privilege of organizing a three day celebration for the Anniversary. The first day saw eight events packed and executed at the appointed hour and minute. An event of note was the issue of the Anniversary Stamp which was cancelled by the Secretary, Ministry of Posts and Tele communications, Mr. K.C Logeswaran, an old boy of the College. It took a good part of his energy for nearly an year to do everything with precision. In these tasks he had the unstinted support of the Vice Principal, Rev. N.J. Gnanaponrajah. A very worthwhile addition to the College ten years ago was a new block of ten classrooms. This was a contribution from Dr. Thevasahayam and family members in memory of his Father Mr. Eliyathamby who was Head Master in the forties.
Groomed in the tradition of physical transformation of the College is the incumbent Principal Rev. Gnanaponrajah. Appointed in 2006, he continues to provide fresh facilities to the institution. Computers now total a hundred and reach all students from grade l to AL classes. When the war in the Wanni left many children orphaned and destitute he picked up a few hundred for accommodation and instruction at College expense. Affable in many ways he performs his duties with acceptance to staff and students. While his present work is appreciated fresh laurels are looked forward to.
The current year saw the 190th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the school. It is cause for elation among teachers and students, both past and present. I have often wondered whether the good souls who made the College great, see the present from their perch up above. So I wish and so would all.