Reason for remembering Father Eugene John Hebert S.J


by B. Nimal Veerasingham

Though continents apart, New Orleans in a lot of ways brings memories of the Eastern Sri Lankan city of Batticaloa. The care free simple folks; the endurance of historical hardships; smell of evaporating muddy watersheds; the exquisite variation of its seafood culinary; the uniqueness of its music and fine arts – all bring memories of the Eastern town of Batticaloa, which laced with similarities of the Louisiana region in the American South. But what is even more similar is the longest river Mississippi – a fresh waterway that crisscrosses many American States; it is similar in character to the Batticaloa lagoon, though hardly comparable to its length and barely used for transportation.

Louisiana also brings back memories of a stark, but darker one – Father Eugene Hebert, a Jesuit priest and a son of Louisiana, who ‘disappeared’ according to official records, during the communal disturbances 22 years ago this month, along the road connecting the towns of Batticaloa and Valaichchenai. He was returning from another Church mission to provide relief along with a Tamil boy in the pillion of his scooter. Both were seen last passing the roadway not far from the gentle waves of the legendry ‘Singing Fish’ lagoon according to witnesses, about 15 km from the city of Batticaloa.

Fr. Eugene Hebert hailed from Jennings, Louisiana, about an hour’s drive, North West of New Orleans, distinct for its rice production for many decades amidst the growing oil industry. Eugene John Hebert joined the Jesuits on August 14, 1941 at the age of 17. After completion of Jesuit studies, he volunteered for the ‘Ceylon Mission’. As part of his assignment, he served in many capacities both at St. Joseph’s College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. In the 1970s, Jesuit schools were taken over by the State, and Fr. Hebert was sent to Batticaloa to work at the Eastern Technical Institute, the joint Jesuit and Methodist institute, as its director.

As a junior student at St. Michael’s in the early 70s, I was fascinated by Fr. Hebert’s appearance and electrifying character - who occasionally came from Tricomalee for basketball tournaments held at Batticaloa. First of all, I was perplexed as to why his name was pronounced as ‘Hebare’ instead of ‘Hebert’, as its spelt. Little do I know at that time that Louisiana was a French colony once, and in fact the very name Louisiana was derived from King Louis XIV of France (1643 – 1715).

ET’ phenomenon

Much more on a serious note, the game of basketball became an ‘ET’ phenomenon straight from the outer space, under the watchful narrow eyes, covered by thinly rimmed glasses on the frame of a slightly hunched, yet tall Fr.Hebert. He had a slight resemblance of Singaporean Statesman ‘Lee Kuan Yew’ and when I think of it now; he did more resembled like a US Marine, both in appearance and work ethics. Black hard boots, collarless white cotton T shirt, short ‘crew-cut’ hair style accompanied with a fast paced brisk walk and a penetrating smile – all that he radiated, pointed towards a disciplined man of action. By any means that did not translate into making him into a domineering coach, but rather putting together a wide-web of acumen, long practices, strategies and a rigid team work – all meticulously executed.

It is not an understatement that the renaissance of Basketball not only at St. Michael’s, but to the whole Island dawned, when Fr. Hebert arrived at Batticaloa full time in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to be part of the team that won the All Island Championship in 1974, which started an era where St. Michael’s became synonymous with the game of basketball. Winning All Island Championships in most age groups was not anything of magical year after year – but the consistent approach of constant practices; sometimes starting on the very next day after the completion of a tourney - mostly on strengthening the fundamentals - everything from strategic passes to familiarity to use either hand in executing lay-ups to prevent rejects by the opposition. Scoring was only secondary, compared to avoidable mistakes, in Father’s fundamentals. No matter how great a player is, he would be substituted immediately for making such mistakes and sent back again after enduring an earful at the bench.

Protection, guidance and ethics

One of the things I always remember is the protection, guidance and ethics, Father provided and instilled in us. Once, when we arrived at a leading school in Colombo for overnight accommodation from a day long train journey, the security guard (Watcher) refused to let us into the building due to some ‘mix-up’ of papers. He was prepared to let only the ‘Father’ to the Priest’s residence upstairs. Father, ever resourceful got permission from the guard to sleep on a roofed but open basketball courts behind the school buildings, and stayed with us the whole night, using his cassock as the bed sheet and a wooden box as his pillow.

He always carried the basketball rule book and demanded quite passionately the strict adherence by the referees and other officials. This attitude of standing for fairness by a gentle giant gave the boys of Batticaloa, the power of confidence that they hardly knew existed. It’s not unusual to see Father exclaiming in disbelief, if he noticed anyone conducting outside the rule book, whether it’s the players or officials. This unbowed action towards established rules quite often brought emotions to the surface; mostly in the form of hostilities towards the team in the form of catcalls from outside the court and aggressive interactions within. But Father always stood firmly on his ground – always on principles. In most of the home games at Batticaloa, he reprimanded the booing home fans against the visiting teams, to the extent of halting the games. It’s an irony even the NBA in the US, allow the home teams to use boos, megaphones and noodles to distract free-throws of the opposition.

Then there was this unbelievable crossing of life lessons, he immersed us time to time, contradicting his fiery approach of nothing but winning Championships. There were instances where we have to return from Colombo without participating in ‘Consolation Finals’ for the very reason we failed our berth to the Finals. Under such a quadrangle of winning platitude, the masses he said during tournaments, in small chapels, was a testimony of triumph between his heavenly vows and earthly victories.

Loss and defeat

"Though we give our best – at times we may endure defeat even after doing the right things. We may lose games but should not let us dragged into get defeated. The important thing is to learn from that and rise again – to condition ourselves to treat victory and defeat on an equal note" father would say. Seated on the front pew, barely three feet from his baritone voice, the message confused my teenage perceptions. How could he compromise his uncompromised victory podium message fiercely propagated in basketball tournaments? Little did I realize his mission at that time, of immortalizing life lessons for our journey beyond the basketball courts?

When I rerun Father’s legacy now, I see the overwhelming confluence of Globalization, which the world has overwhelmingly accepted for economic growth and prosperity, where innovation and specializing skills to suit market conditions, intermittently running throughout. An American showing the time tested tools of achieving the goals in a more determined and disciplined way. But free market economies and competitive production costs are far flung notions for the average Batticalonian at that time. What Father’s ethics and game plan did for the people of Batticaloa during that span is quite magnanimous and immeasurable.

At a time when the elitist concentration from the East was scarce among the academic, commercial and corporate sectors in the Capital compared to other regions, Father Hebert propelled fresh breath through the game of Basketball, which quickly caught the attention of the media. The recognition and the respect it brought touched the inner core of confidence and uplifted a generation into achievers with equal footing. Hailing from Batticaloa was not looked down upon anymore; but invariably throttled to the upper echelons of opportunities via higher education and employment. The boost was fueled by Fr.Hebert’s game of basketball and the victory parades St. Michael’s College had year after year, starting from the ‘White’ bridge over the Batticaloa lagoon to the College entrance along Central road. Besides the prospects of employment abroad, due to his direct contribution through the Eastern Technical Institute, many youth were able to get into the corporate sector; not to mention the Police and Armed forces.

It also brought an appreciation for rules and responsibilities among all, both inside and outside the basketball arena. It upheld the unanimous appreciation for playing by the rules, if the game is to sustain integrity, recognition and growth. The other message Father sent across the spectrum was the ultimate triumph of team work, which instigated and encouraged leadership qualities in each member. At a time when the nation was not that preoccupied with Cricket, Father put forward the notion that only through teamwork, victory could be sealed and not through individual star power. Each team from St. Michael’s College contained this ultimate joint chivalry, which other teams copied in order to challenge that supremacy.

Batticaloa lagoon and Mississippi

I sometimes wonder to what extent the Batticaloa lagoon would have reminded Father of the mighty Mississippi; in the environs where he was born and raised. The network of mangroves, shrimps, crabs, clams, mussels, fresh water fish; the rich sediments each flood water brings to enrich the surrounding paddy fields; the fishermen clutching their lanterns and nets for their nightly catch. Being an accomplished player of saxophone, trumpet and anything in between, would he had sensed the ‘second line’ drumming and the ‘blues’ type musical melodies from the many literary musicals staged in the surrounding villages across the lagoon. The calm nightly breeze over the reflective lagoon did always contain the desire to carry those musical melodies in its wings – probably its path included the 2nd story Jesuit residences at St. Michael’s College, with little resistance. These are some of the remnants of tantalizing memories that would always linger around.

Back in the Pacific, somewhat geographically in between Sri Lanka and the United States, the lost American souls off Pearl Harbor are being remembered through the oil droplets from the still leaking fuselages of the sunken ships, named as ‘black tears’. River Mississippi has its own ‘black tears’ - some through the act of God, like the hurricanes and others through man-made oil spillages in the Gulf.

Underneath the green algae and certainly below the gently overlapping, white frothy waves, the Batticaloa lagoon conveniently hides an inconvenient truth. When would it get redeemed from the ‘black tear’ - the still languishing question on a gentle soul that disappeared closer to its shores?

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