PROF. Warren Ranjithan Breckenridge 1938-2009
There is a line in one of John Donne’s less metaphysical poems which says –
"Any man’s death diminishes me"
We are, all of us, greatly diminished – and indeed impoverished – by the loss of Professor Warren Ranjithan Breckenridge. Of course it is his immediate family that will feel the biggest impact of his death and we extend to them our deepest sympathies and condolences and wish them the strength to bear their loss.
But it is also Breck’s wide circle of friends and students who feel the loss of a man who graced the world with his dignity, decency and humanism.
I am privileged to count myself as one of his friends. Breck and I shared our adolescent years here on the Trinity compound in the 1950s. We were in the same class taught by the great teachers of that time – R.R.Breckenridge (Breck’s famous father), G.Y.Sahayam, Gordon Burrows, Hilary Abeyratne, N.G.Jacob and many others. We played the same sports on the playing fields of Trinity despite Breck’s asthmatic condition. We were in the same cadet battalion and went to Boosa with the Junior Cadets and to Diyatalawa with the Senior Cadets. We were together proud pioneers of the new day-scholar house Lemuel. Breck entered the University of Colombo to read the sciences and I, together with Sarath Amunugama, Ahmed Marikar, N.G.Perera and Ananda Wickremaratne went on to read the humanities in the University of Peradeniya.
Breck was heir to a great family tradition in Trinity – the tradition of the Breckenridges. There was, as its dean, R.R. Breckenridge; there was S.N.R.Breckenridge and Rex Breckenridge. And then in Breck’s own family there was Karan – my colleague in the Foreign Service - and Mano. The name of Trinity is frequently associated with Rev.A.G.Fraser and McLeod Campbell. But the Breckenridges also left an indelible stamp on Trinity and helped, as that seasoned Trinity scribe Sharm de Alwis has put it, to turn Trinity "from brick to marble". They were a special class of people. The Breckenridges were not xerox-copied individuals. They were true originals. The mould of their making has not been replicated. There was a nonchalance about them, a scant regard for convention and a laconic style of speaking.
Breck was a great teacher – a quality undoubtedly inherited from his father. He established a remarkable rapport with his students in Peradeniya and at Trinity. He was always accessible and related easily to them outside the class-room with his modesty and simplicity.
He was the 16th Principal of Trinity in a long line of greats. He took the job reluctantly amidst great pressures and I recall his telling me that he doubted if his health would help him withstand the challenges of the job. For five years from 1998 to 2003 he served in that position serving Trinity according to the values he had imbibed within his family and in Trinity. Some of those in whom he placed his trust betrayed him. Some old boys chose to judge his performance by the scoreboard at the Bradby Shield matches. Throughout all this Breck maintained his dignity and principles. Finally his health forced him to retire to his mountain home in Hantana.
This is the year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – a giant in Breck’s chosen field of scientific study, Zoology. Amidst the plethora of words written about Darwin and by him I came across this quotation that summed up Darwin’s view of man as a gregarious animal. "A man’s friendhips" he said, "are one of the best measures of his worth". By that measure Breck was surely a very worthy man with his wide circle of friends.
So Breck was a great scientist, a great teacher, a great Sri Lankan and a great Trinitian. We celebrate a life lived over the Biblical span of three score and ten years – a full life in which Breck served the cause of education, the University of Peradeniya, Trinity and his community and country.
Years ago on a Colombo stage I acted the role of Horatio to Karan Breckenridge’s Hamlet and had to speak Shakespeare’s immortal lines – "Good night, sweet prince!
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
Today, in real life, I say with a heart heavy with sorrow "S’long Breck! May the pantheon of past Trinity heroes wrap you up in your Trinity blazer and protect you!".
(Based on unscripted remarks made at the Trinity College Chapel funeral service on September 8, 2009)