Josephian Francis Fonseka a great sportsman with athletics as his forte

by Harold de Andrado
To lose a friend of six decades brings much sadness and sorrow. Death which no one can avoid came to Francis Fonseka on the 24th of October 98 following a terminal illness which was patiently and courageously borne. Right through that dreadful illness he never lost his sense of humour. He was a fighter all the way displaying his true Josephian grit, where a half century ago he was everyone’s toast. Having had his early and primary education, at St. Peter’s and St. Aloysius, Galle, his first love was St. Joseph’s where he was a stalwart and contributed so much. I was his schoolmate, team-mate, sharing our adversities being on the cricket reserve list part of the time, and of course he was my closest friend, unbroken friendship from school days up to fifteen minutes before his death, before he became unconscious.

As a great sportsman he was never tied down by tradition. A gambler on life perhaps and an adventurer, he always displayed his grit and fighting spirit. He excelled at cricket and soccer but athletics was his forte. As a batsman he had tremendous courage and made use of the power and wiriness that was his by nature and was always prone to attack never leaving the initiative to the bowler. He bowled square arm and fast though his bowling was undervalued by his coach, and in the covers he was absolutely brilliant and among the greatest of fieldsmen produced by the old school. He was a superb speedy right extreme at soccer with a tremendous centre kick. He was a great and versatile athlete being the school champion in both sprints and the 220 yds low hurdles (now a defunct event). As a junior he was also a pole vaulter and high jumper but specialised in the relays. He made a great contribution to St. Joseph’s being an undisputed athletic champion in the mid forties but his greatest performance which has no peer was the second lap of the quarter mile relay where the first lapper handed over the baton to the third lapper and he had done the impossible in having got a 30-yard lead. It was plain sailing from then on for his team to win that race and the overall championship too. His coach the late Anthony Abeysinghe timed that particular lap which was the equivalent of the then world record for the quarter mile, and a race reminiscent of Rampling the gold medallist of at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936.

In today’s context a great champ of yesteryear was the hallmark of Francis sporting career. Yet he was a victim of great injustice especially in soccer where his captain, coach and POG dropped him most unfairly after having had a very successful previous season. Similarly the coach and POG at cricket dropped him from the Josephian-Peterite match. It was not surprising that his replacement failed miserably and St. Joseph’s suffered their first defeat of the series. Such was the dictatorial powers of the autocrats during that period. It was this type of unfair treatment that made him a rebel — rebel with a cause through the entire school. Thirty-seven years later his son faced a similar dropping from the ‘big match’ only which brought back bitter memories to us. He and I joined the NCC as schoolboys and in the past five decades Francis had been a senior vice president for many years and in his last two years was senior vice patron and life member. He had a wonderful, devoted, caring and loyal wife and four fine sons who excelled in sports like the father and who are missing him very much. He had a happy and peaceful death surrounded by his family advising and entrusting his wife Joyce to be looked after by the sons. His brother Ben, the diplomat predeceased him a couple of years earlier coincidentally of the some terminal illness.

Francis was a stalwart of the building industry with his brother Michael following in the footsteps of his father and carrying out a century old tradition. He was a devout Catholic. The final rites at his funeral were administered by three of his team-mates, Rev. Fr. Joe de Mel, a public schools putt shot champion, Rev. Fr. Lucien Dep, the public school record holder in pole vault and another great Josephian in Rev. Fr. Thomas K. Kurakose.

Our lives ran parallel over the years. He was 27 days my senior and we equally shared our strong likes and dislikes. We played cricket together, played truant, cut school, went to the films on the sly and shared many a drink.

I was his bestman and also the godfather to one of his sons. What remains is only his memory.

Beyond the debate of his competence, Francis always showed us a glimpse of his genuine, chivalrous, generous and cavalier nature. He disliked critics like any of us. His repartee was always "Don’t waste my time and your ignorance". He has passed through another gate and awaits to welcome his lovedones.