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Ambassador Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert

With the passing away of RCA Vandergert, another oak in the Foreign Service has fallen; and we are the poorer by it. Mr. Vandergert could be well described as a pioneer in this country’s diplomatic service having joined what was then a still fledgling Ceylon Overseas Service, in 1960. To those of us like me who followed him in to the profession nearly 3 decades or so later, he exemplified old world charm, much of which had vanished by the time we arrived on the scene.

Very generous to a fault, he insisted on us young cadets on the need to apply oneself with diligence and seriousness to work. He did not exhort by mere words alone but led by practice. Happily caught in the coils of work, he like many others of that generation considered working half a day on Saturday more as a norm than an exception. Spelling mistakes or even a missing comma were particularly revolting and none missed his eagle eye, they being marked three times over and circled for good measure! When a report did not embody all what was expected, it would be sent back pronto with a concisely written minute flowing off an extremely neat fist, listing how best it could be improved. But when one was good he never attempted to gild the lily and complimented the compiler – "Vandergert here" he would promptly say into the extension line "I say that brief on …… was excellent".

Once, so many years ago, in the course of drafting a speech, he sent off a young recruit to the British Council just to check on a particular comma in the "Rubaiyat" which was missing in his copy - devoured by silver fish. "Now, please ensure that you check it on Fitzgerald’s translation and no one else’s", he insisted upon the young man whose academic brilliance lay in a field far removed from literature. With such punctiliousness in the days before the arrival of the now ubiquitous personal computer, compiling reports and week-end briefs or even a letter became a challenge, specially for the hapless stenographer, with sometimes more than two drafts having to be typed all over again until the desired excellence was achieved! But the value of it all had to be experienced to be believed. Almost naturally, the striving for similar excellence by those who were fortunate to come under his tutelage was evident in their own work as they climbed the professional ladder in later years.

The gentleman was blessed with a fine mind and an innate capacity for grasping the subtleties of a complex situation. Perhaps this had its roots in a more than passing interest in the law - he did have an Ll.M, though he was never one to wear it on his sleeve. Rancour and envy he had none.

By the late 80s and early 90s, Rodney Vandergert, John Gooneratne, Manel Abeysekera, Jayantha Dhanapala, Nihal Rodrigo, Alfred David, among others of that vintage, were in their prime, having completed a quarter century and more in the Foreign Service. The likes of Bernard Goonetilleke and Daneshan Casie Chitty were to reach that milestone shortly thereafter. Many of them had imbibed the "Peradeniya tradition", post Ludowyke, and all had drunk deeply into the Queen’s language, and often new recruits were treated to a colorful nugget here or a Shakesperian quote there. In such company, Rodney Vandergert would be in his element, whether at cracking a joke filled with pun or, in a serious mode, explaining the finer points of a political development unfolding in some part of the world. Listening to him and the others was an edifying experience, not merely for the points conveyed but for the particular idiosyncrasies with which they were expressed.

For a diplomat, Mr. Vandergert was rather uniquely attired – he cared less for the frills of a crisply ironed and creased shirt and trousers, but for all the simplicity, he was well turned out at all times. The only thing of any material value on him was an old stainless steel watch, the white dial of which had been browned by time. When told of Carl Muller’s description of "the elf-faced Vandergert" in a novel, he laughingly shot back "at least my schoolmate got a better description of me than even a photographer could".

Frugality with government funds was a professional ideal and a personal passion, and even as Secretary Foreign Affairs he took time to fine comb any expenditure, ever questioning the need for something he thought could be avoided. At times he would take such exactitude to Gilbertian heights! But that was Rodney Vandergert.

Uniquely approachable and helpful for an official of his seniority, Mr. Vandergert was Mr. Simple at all times. He would deflate any pompous cadet’s ego by relating a story of how whilst on a posting to Islamabad as a young diplomat, he had to personally carry and even a feed a rare parakeet which was a gift from the government of Sri Lanka his High Commissioner was to handover to a Pakistani Zoo. Then he would regale us with the story of how he had to sometimes take the weekly incoming diplomatic bag to the racecourse where he and his High Commissioner, a keen turfite, would discuss its contents as the boss lowered his gaze in between races!

Rodney Vandergert served Sri Lanka with distinction in many overseas posts, capping off a remarkable career as High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to the Soviet Union and finally as Head of Mission in China. Endowed with excellent analytical skills, his usually long and cascading reports were a pleasure to read not only for their originality and depth but for their remarkable syntax and idiomatic expression.

His lifelong passion was books. We would often see him reading one while at lunch; usually a sandwich which he used to draw rather neatly from a little tiffin box. I distinctly remember him pouring over "Pride and Prejudice", with the intensity of a first timer. "I am still discovering it, even on reading it for a fourth time", he exclaimed.

The best portion of a good man’s life are his little unremembered acts of kindness, and Mr. Vandergert had many. As the evening sun on May 5 dipped its rays over the Borella Cemetery and those present at the last goodbye slowly withdrew homeward into the enveloping darkness, surely one thought would have preoccupied them all: we had just laid to rest an honorable and simple man. Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert was indeed more than the sum of his parts.

Farewell, Sir, and thank you for the memories.

Ahmed A. Jawad

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