The remains of Mr. Fitzroy Derek Christopher Wijesinghe were laid to rest on March 8, in the presence of a large gathering of fellow Christians, former professionals and officials, friends and relatives.
Mr. Wijesinghe, fondly known as Derek to all who knew him, was born on April 9, 1922, the eldest child of the late Francis Daniel and the late Gladys Wijesinghe, both of whom I remember from my childhood as devout and highly regarded persons.
Derek was a bright student at Royal College, where his father was a teacher. He obtained an external degree from the University of London in Economics and proceeded to serve his motherland in various capacities. He was a teacher at St. John’s College, Nugegoda; a Divisional Road Transport Officer in the Department of Motor Traffic, and a Research Officer in the Department of National Planning.
At the Department of National Planning, he worked under the eminent economist Dr. Gamani Corea, whom he held in high regard. Dr. Corea nominated Derek for a Rees Jeffreys Studentship in Transport Economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). This resulted in Derek’s postgraduate work on Transport Economics at LSE, under the doyen of British transport economists of that era, Gilbert J. Ponsonby.
He then obtained his master’s degree, M.Sc. (Econ.). Dr. Corea sent Derek as an economic advisor with the Ceylon delegation to the 21st session of the UN General Assembly in New York in 1966.
He held two executive positions in the private sector in Sri Lanka and served as a consultant economist at the World Bank, Washington DC, and continued as senior economist, specialising in commodities at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
Having served in two international organizations, he retired from active service and returned to Sri Lanka, where he continued his interest in economics and transport by serving as a member of the Fair Trading Commission.
More recently, he took a great interest in Health Economics and was instrumental in obtaining funding for the special care baby unit of the Castle Street Maternity Hospital.
He was the second chairman of the Chartered Institute of Transport (CIT), UK (Sri Lanka section). During the formative period of the CIT (SL section), I had the privilege of associating with him in its establishment.
The institute, renamed the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics, is among the prestigious professional bodies in Sri Lanka. With his guidance, I became its chairman during the conflict period in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, when transport was a high-risk commodity.
In fact, the day I was inducted as chairman there was a threat to public transport, and Derek was among the handful who attended the induction ceremony, along with the then Minister of Transport.
Derek was a soft-spoken, articulate and focused contributor. He believed that “being on time for a meeting is actually being five minutes late.” This he manifested in his professional, official and spiritual obligations.
He was a practising, God-fearing Christian. His sincerity, integrity and honesty were recognised by his peers and subordinates.
On a personal note, I owe him a debt of gratitude, as officer at the Registry of the Maradana Technical College. The day after my GCE 0/Level results in 1959, he gave me an application form to enrol as a Junior Technical Officer (JTO), and this laid the foundation for my career in tertiary education.
In his latter years, when I would visit him in his home and meet him at gatherings, he would recall the early days. On my last visit a few months ago, he was very concerned about me and kept asking, “Now where are you?” When I visited him in hospital to say goodbye, before going on an overseas trip, he had his usual gentle smile. He opened his eyes and acknowledged my presence. I am consoled that he breathed his last just when I returned to our motherland, which we both valued, and I was able to pay my last respects.
May his spiritual and exemplary life, unique characteristics, integrity remain with all of us who valued and respected him.
He gracefully trod the minefield of politics
"I think my innings is coming to an end. I have a few singles to score before I wind up. That's not to say I have scored heavily in sixes and fours. An occasional boundary or a six may have graced my innings but essentially I was content taking the singles and doubles." That's how he summed up his life choosing to draw the similes from the game of cricket which he loved so much. And he said this about three months before his death in such a cheerful manner, it forced a smile on the faces of all who were beside him.
At Elpitiya, his home town, hundreds gathered to pay their respects to the man they loved very much. He had finished his innings gracefully a few days ago. Many observed a noticeable feature in this crowd. That they belonged to all sections of the political divide and were present to show how much they loved and respected the man. Perhaps the best tribute paid to a life lived without malice towards none.
At his Elpitiya residence along the corridor where people lined up, hung some vintage photographs of Rupasena Karunatilleke, better known as Rupa. I casually asked some schoolchildren if they knew the famous personalities who were in those photographs with Rupa. They did not. Only a few adults managed to identify Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru. The brilliance of Dr. Sarwapalli Radhakrishnan, the highly respected Rajendra Prasad and the well known charisma of Nehru appeared to have lost their value in a society beset with the veneration of the filthy lucre and pettiness in all its aspects. Had Rupa been there, I am sure he would have said, “Don't complain, Time passes by and so does everything including values".
At the funeral ceremony, speaker after speaker, both from the clergy and other, and from both sides of the political divide, spoke vehemently stressing on one quality Rupa possessed. That he was a gentleman to the core and gracefully trod on minefield of politics mindful of two important elements - decency and honesty. Dr. Sarath Amunugama delivering his eulogy quoted a famous sloka in Sanskrit that extols the virtues of being a gentleman and what it takes to be a gentleman. Rev Baddegama Samitha addressing the vast gathering, went to the extent of saying that he saw a similarity between Rupa's conduct in politics and that of what the great Dr. Ambedkar wanted a politician to be. Sadly both the Sanskrit soloka and the very name Dr. Ambedkar were lost on the majority of the gathering.
Rupa came from a very distinguished and wealthy family in Niyagama, Elpitiya. He had his early education at Mahinda College and later at Nalanda College. Though he did not quite make the academic grade or excel in any sport, he had been the self-appointed first eleven cricket team manager at Nalanda, accompanying the team almost in all of its matches. This used to be recounted by Stanley Jayasinghe, whenever the two met. Rupa took to business and as a kind of a vocation went into politics as was customary then. Dudley Senanayake was impressed by his oratorical capacity and had offered him the post of organizer for the UNP at Bentara Elpitiya.
His close relative and friend the late Rev. Mapalagama Vipulasara introduced him to the famous Indian political giants and the photographs mentioned above were taken in those moments. I asked him what it was like meeting the great philosopher and the second president of India, Dr. Sarwapalli Radhakrishnan. His reply was that he had a feeling of awe posing with the great man but he felt virtually magnetized in the presence of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru. His enthusiasm to discuss these very nostalgic moments showed very clearly his respect for greatness.
He successfully continued and expanded his family business whilst engaging in politics. He never got the priorities and ethics of the two mixed up. Always mindful that his reputation and that of his family was at stake, he very carefully negotiated the difficult terrain of political power. He was not corrupt and never allowed anyone under him to be corrupt either. He always said that the administration of public funds is sacred as much as the handling of income from religious institutions.
A lover of cinema and theatre, he could almost describe by rote the various songs and scenes of famous Hindi films and the names of actors who took part. Maname and Sinhabahu were his chosen best in the Sinhala theatre. However, his interest in aesthetic works took a backseat after his involvement in politics.
He liked to indulge in the luxury of a good cigar. I have heard him saying very often that it was the late President J.R. Jayawardene who gave him the best of cigars from his stock until he died. There was a regular set of friends who visited him in his retirement and the meetings were always joyful.
Rupa never spoke bitterly or in some degree of anger against anyone. A great human quality that kept him very relaxed. To grow old gracefully is a remarkable gift and Rupa was a splendid example of it. Those born on the dates that add up to number six are almost always very endearing and charismatic people, numerologists say. Rupa was born on the 15th of March.
All good things must come to an end. Strangely, in the present day, it seems that only the good things are coming to an end almost perceptibly. The bad things just take a brief break and continue with added vigour. Dr. Ranjith Atapattu, Health Minister of the late President Jayawardene's cabinet summed up the whole scenario quite humorously when he addressed the funeral gathering. It was a poignant speech, perhaps the most sincere goodbye Rupa got from a political associate.
Rupa had a mission to complete when he was born into this world like any other. I can say he fulfilled it to the best. That he did it in style is the crowning factor. President Jayawardene said at the end of his term that he did it his way, repeating the words of Frank Sinatra. I guess Rupa did it in his own way too.
Goodbye, Sir. You were a lovely man. The kind of man I would walk miles to meet up with should I get another chance. You were not a great politician or even a great entrepreneur. There were no airs and graces about you. You were a very lovable man and sincerity was written all over you. We will miss you. Your immediate family will miss you immensely. We could only offer to share their grief in the vain hope that the grief will wear out soon.
Champion of the wronged, he was admired for his balanced thinking and integrity
One feels a sense of hopelessness when confronted with the sudden loss of a friend who appeared one moment to be in good health, and was gone the next. This was how we felt when we heard of the sudden death of Deepal.
Just a few days before, Deepal was consoling me on the loss of my mother. We had a brief chat. He gave no indication that the next funeral I would attend would be his. At the Galkissa Cemetery, our sorrow knew no bounds when we saw Deepal’s little child playing by himself, oblivious of the funeral rites going on and the devastating blow that had been dealt to him.
The many mourners were all in a state of shock.
Deepal was an energetic young man who was respected for his scholarly approach to work and the splendid results he produced, both in court and in relation to the disputes he handled for member companies of the Employers Federation.
He joined the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) in 2001. He was a vital part of its legal and industrial relations service to the nation, and in particular the business community. He joined the EFC from the Attorney General’s Department, where he had established his name and shown his talent for advocacy, meticulous preparation and clarity of thinking.
So dedicated was he to his work that he neglected to seek medical attention for the headaches that were bothering him, and which turned out to be ominous warnings of a fatal illness.
He was the third professional to die in harness at the EFC. The first was Mahadeva, the chief executive many years ago, and more recently, Diyanesh Rajaratnam.
I mention all this as most people do not realise how stressful a job the professional staff of the EFC have. When an an employee is dismissed, he has lost his means of living; strikes mean that disputes have reached proportions of hatred and violent behaviour; and disciplinary issues affect people and their futures. What the EFC professionals do is take on the headaches of others. Sometimes this turns out to be a thankless job.
Deepal did his demanding job with great acceptance and fairness. His death is a loss not only to the EFC and its members but to the whole community. Balanced thinking and integrity are hard to come by.
Ammi, we cherish fond memories of you
It’s one year, since you passed away to glory darling Ammi. We know you are in our God’s Kingdom and may a thousand Angels sing praises to you for the wonderful life you gave us, especially your loving care to me your husband and our two daughters Sirani and Sriyanga.
Inspite of your sickness you prepared delicious meals, sewed and kept a beautiful home in addition to taking care of all of us. You were an inspiration and a teacher to all the young children in the vicinity of our home in Kotte, teaching them English from 2 p.m. till as late as 8.30 p.m.
You charged a nominal fee but for most it was free of charge. You even took them on educational tours to Kandy to visit the Dalada Maligawa, the Botanical Gardens and other places of interest, always preparing patties, cultlets, and sandwiches and providing drink for the children on these trips.
No one will forget your mouth-watering chocolate cake. Your equally tasty lamprais and Buriyani will also not be forgotten.
Ammi you were a great seamstress too and infact a few days prior to passing away had started on some clothes for our two daughtersaying, “Thaththi I will finish these frocks when I am feeling better.”
You were not only an inspiration but also a blessing to our family in addition to your mother, brothers and sisters who were far away in Matale. Whenever you went there you used to prepare your delicious chocolate cake and other food varieties to take with you.
We miss you a lot and words cannot express the void we feel. But we find comfort that God has taken you to his Glorious Kingdom without any suffering or pain. I will never forget your last moments as you lay on my lap gazing at me with a smile while on the way to Sri Jayewardanapura Hospital.
You were a person who had immense faith in our Lord Jesus and I write these following words that were written and kept inside your Bible. “Lord Jesus, what you did for Lazarus, you can do for me too, if it is your will you can heal me?”’
Yes Lord Jesus you have healed our darling Ammi and taken her to your heavenly kingdom.
We thank our Lord each time we think of you and when we pray for you.