I was saddened to learn about the death of Prof. CLV Jayathilake in a recent communication from Sri Lanka. With his passing Peradeniya University loses one of its last and most illustrious academicians of the “old guard” of international standing who meticulously followed the example of Sir Ivor Jennings and other pioneers to create world class graduates, and the nation loses a man of exceptional intelligence and humanity.
Prof. Lakshman Jayathilake was Head of Mechanical Engineering during my early undergraduate days at Peradeniya and he went on to become the Dean of Engineering and was the Vice Chancellor at the time I graduated, and I was honored to receive my degree certificate from his hands at the annual convocation. We always looked forward to his engaging Thermodynamics classes and his style of teaching. His introductions were crisp and clear, his energy and enthusiasm for the subject totally infectious and his delivery and insights profound. He always maintained just enough tension in the lectures to keep the students engaged and using his disciplined instructor cadres of recent high performing graduates he made sure the gravitas of the lectures carried over to the laboratory and we were thoroughly engaged in the subject both from the theory and from the practical approaches. He had the uncanny ability to sense very early who in a diverse class drawn from all corners of the country was most gifted and focused on arcane engineering problems and strived for research excellence. They usually went on to become his future instructors and potential doctoral students all over the world.
He also knew who was struggling to keep up despite all good intentions and who was distracted with other matters such as the myriad political movements that were expostulating on their versions of Marxism to gullible undergraduates. Yet he would respect everyone if they maintained adequate academic performance and those who were retrograde would meet his deep penetrating gaze during lectures and knew that Professor Lakshman has made a mental note to personally check their lab reports and other submissions. And woe betide those who were thus noted and still did not rectify their Thermodynamics course work or engineering drawings with alacrity. Chances are that your disrespect to the subject may require much penance and you may be now held to a higher standard for a pass leading to multiple painful attempts at meeting them. No one could go through his stewardship of Thermodynamics or engineering graphic design and aspire to matriculate without demonstrating the required level of understanding and facility with those subjects.
His scrutiny of students went beyond the university. During our industrial training at the end of the academic year, Prof. Jayathilake would visit work locations unannounced, firing off questions and making sure we were putting what we learned to work and appreciating the industrial aspects of our program. Looking back, I can now see how his scrutiny and energy made most of us strive for excellence at everything we do. I think my contemporaries at Peradeniya would agree that the peripatetic academic avatar of Prof. Jayathilake and his deep, penetrating eagle eyes continue to subconsciously remind us that we must resolve to do the absolute best in all work that we undertake and that nothing less is acceptable from a Peradeniya engineer.
Prof. Jayathilake was happy to give guidance to his past students long after we left the university, and I was fortunate to get his advice at a few critical junctures in my career. His observations were always sharp, and his criticism was always constructive. As time passed, he was more down to earth with his comments, spoke about his brother who is an accomplished singer in the United States where I now live and slowly, I could sense to my delight that I am now becoming a friend with the man who I used to treat with great respect and deference. I also noticed that he has made an easy transition from academia into the politically charged administrative work at the University Grants Commission and I felt proud of his obvious talents beyond engineering tutelage. I know he was deeply involved in doing his best for the overall education sector of the country and accomplished a lot until his passing and I am sure his sharp intellect and fecundity remained undiminished until his death.
I doubt whether any lectures of Prof. Jayathilake were ever recorded and archived at Peradeniya although the university had the required facilities and infrastructure to do so. However, if one were to accept as the gold standard such luminaries as Mehra Kardar or Keith Nelson at MIT whose lectures on Thermodynamics are now available freely online through the MIT open course lecture program, then as any Peradeniya engineering alum of his time can attest to, Prof. Jayathilake’s lectures could easily rival them. It saddens me to realize that we probably missed a great opportunity to record for posterity not only Prof. Jayathilake’s exceptional lectures but also those of other world class academicians at Peradeniya Engineering Faculty such as Profs. Amaratunga, Galapptti, Gunawardena, Jayasekera, Mahalingam, Ranatunga, Ranaweera, Sivasegaram and Thurairaja, just to name a few. Imagine where we would be in a global perspective if we had an online lecture series like MIT from our own Peradeniya University professors?
While we silently grieve his departure, I believe the best way to honor his memory would be to help gifted students who would otherwise not get a chance to succeed at higher education. This can be an action item for all Peradeniya engineers who came under his tutelage. I am sure that any such activity would have made Prof. Jayathilake feel deeply honored.