It is with a deep sense of sorrow that I pen these words of tribute in memory of Air Chief Marshal Harry Goonetileke, to honour him on his second death anniversary.
The Air Chief was a one-in-a-million person – a noble soul, the epitome of honesty and integrity, coupled with commitment, loyalty and dedication. He maintained these characteristics and qualities throughout his tenure as Commander of our prestigious Air Force, until his retirement from the service.
A stern disciplinarian, he played each inning with a straight bat and lived by his principles. He was the embodiment of an uncorrupt, true patriotic son of Sri Lanka. He stood tall, without having to cringe and receive handouts. He never abused his powers. He was content with what he had, and was never ambitious or craved wealth, although, as Commander of the Air Force, he had prerogatives, special rights and advantages.
The Air Chief was quite outspoken, regardless of the consequences. He was unpretentious, and disliked deceitful wheeler-dealer activities and showy, ostentatious types. He never went against his conscience. He believed that “conscience pricks an honest person.”
Starting in 1971, if I remember correctly, Air Chief Marshal Harry, as Chief of Staff, would oversee welfare meetings with families from all the Air Force camps. They would come to the Colombo Headquarters to have their problems sorted out.
As a founder member of the ex-Air Force Association, he rendered yeoman service, helping the association to grow from its humble beginnings to what it is today. We have to thank ACM Harry Goonetileke for the annual get-togethers where we, retired Air Force officers, meet to reminisce about the good old days in the Force, and for the social events enjoyed by families and children.
After retirement, the Air Chief contributed immensely to the Ranaviru Family Counselling for war widows and the orphans of war victims. This work took him to all corners of Sri Lanka, and he did wonders with those who needed counselling.
A legendary veteran rugby coach, Air Chief Marshal Harry was dubbed the “Father of Air Force Rugby”. Air Force rugby was a dying or defunct sport in the 1950s and early 1960s. Little or no rugby was played until ACM Goonetileke took over as coach.
With limited resources and infrastructure, ACM Goonetileke motivated his team to take Air Force rugby to new heights, enabling the team to qualify for the Clifford Cup tournaments.
He continued to coach, and in 1965 the then Royal Ceylon Air Force became B division League Champions and played in the finals against the CR&FC Club – for the first time in Air Force history. This gave the team due recognition and eventual promotion to A Division Clifford Cup tournaments. Five national rugby captains were moulded by coach Harry Goonetileke. He was my role model and inspiration. It was he who motivated me to take up the sport and it was he who shaped me as a player.
A senior and highly respected referee, he contributed greatly towards the Ceylon Rugby Union (CRU), and later the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU). He was at one time president of the Referees’ Society. Along with Sivendra of the Police as secretary, he kicked off and charged through a largely disorganised referees’ society, tackling and bringing down bad -administration. They finally succeeded in establishing proper administration for the society, and from 1976, competent referees were appointed for matches.
During his period as Commander, the Air Chief flew an unblemished, honoured and esteemed Air Force flag, which has been passed on to his son. Like his father, Air Chief Roshan Goonetileke, the present Commander, keeps this flag billowing way above the mast. The whole Goonetileke clan can walk with their heads held high and their feet firmly on the ground. This is a great compliment to the entire family, and especially to Air Chief Harry’s widow, Mrs. Marion Goonetileke. The Air Chief maintained an upright and loyal service as Commander till he retired from service.
“Behind every successful person is a woman.” Mrs. Marion Goonetileke, Air Chief Harry’s ever loving wife, tended to the Air Chief and took care of the domestic chores when the children were growing up, when official duties, rugby coaching and matches, and late nights kept her husband away from home. This courageous lady kept the home front going in the Air Chief’s absence. She was the wind beneath his wings in all his endeavours.
With all her duties as wife and mother, Marion Goonetileke found time to see to the welfare of the airmen’s families, along with Maureen Seneviratne. They created and nurtured the Air Force Women’s Association, now known as the Seva Vanitha.
History was created when his son, Air Chief Marshal Roshan, became the Air Force Commander. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s armed services, son followed father to take over the command of a service.
When I called the father to congratulate him on his son’s appointment, Harry Goonetileke thanked me and said the record would have been even greater if his second son, the late Group Captain Shirantha Goonetileke, was still alive. Had he lived, he would have taken over from the older brother Roshan. “If my second son was living, I would have had three Air Force Commanders in my family,” he said.
Another record, he said, was that as a retiring commander he did not own a house to move into after retirement, nor did he own a car. Air Chief Harry did not go after money to enrich himself while serving the Air Force as Commander.
The then President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, considering the Air Chief’s unblemished and loyal service, and the fact that he lived a contented life on only his earnings, offered him a government flat in Elvitigala Mawatha. The Air Chief and his family lived in this flat sans security until the day of his passing away.
The Air Chief was more than qualified to carry the title Uncommonly Common High Ranking Officer in the Armed Services, for his exceptional attributes and sterling qualities.
The Air Chief’s death was felt by friends around the world, including former Air Force rugby team members who had honed their rugby skills under him.
Sir, it is two years since you left us, but we remember you with the same warm affection we had for you when you were alive. The legacy you have left behind will be carried forward and will last forever, etched in our minds and recorded for prosperity.
We reach out to share the grief of Mrs. Marion Goonetileke, and son, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, your daughters and their families. We take consolation in the fact that you departed after completing your life’s journey with honour and having answered your call of duty towards country and mankind.
You will be remembered for all your good deeds.
I conclude this appreciation by wishing you a short walk through Sansara and the Blessings of the Triple Gem, so you may attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.
Good-bye, Sir, until the final whistle is blown on us.
(Former Royal Ceylon and Sri Lanka Air Force Ruggerite)