Hilary Abeyratne – the passing away of a Trinity giant

Across the world the Trinity bush telegraph has been active for the last few days transmitting the dismal news of the death in Melbourne, Australia of Hilary Abeyratne – outstanding old boy, legendary teacher and Vice-principal and, above all, a profound influence on several generations of Trinitians as a custodian of the Trinity flame and spirit.

Writing an appreciation of a teacher is like writing an obituary of a part of one’s own life. With Hilary Abeyratne it is that and more – much more. For Hilary was the quintessential Trinitian and with his death a part of Trinity’s rich history dies – no doubt to be embalmed in the memories of future generations. He not only made history in the school "where river, lake and mountain meet" but he recorded its history in a volume that came out to coincide with the centenary of the school in 1972, building on the pioneering work of Valesca Reiman.

The "valete" of Hilary Abeyratne at the end of his remarkable school career was the epitome of what every Trinitian knows is the summum bonum of being an all-rounder– excellence in leadership, academic achievement and success in sports. He was Senior Prefect, Ryde Gold Medallist, Cricket Lion, coloursman in rugby and winner of a clutch of prizes – a feat matched by a select few before him, like R.R.Breckenridge and C.E.Simithraaratchy and after him, by Lakshman Kadirgamar and Kumar Sangakkara.

At the then University of Ceylon in Colombo Hilary read History which he later taught so memorably in Trinity and continued his sports representing the University. After the end of World War II, following a short stint of teaching at Trinity, he went to London for further studies and specialized in Education which he had chosen as a métier renouncing all other lucrative careers which his qualifications and his influential connections could surely have secured for him. It was said, anecdotally, that of his two eminent parents who were among the country’s foremost pediatricians at the time, it was his loving mother who encouraged Hilary to follow his dream to be a teacher supplementing his meager salary when necessary. Hilary himself said, self-deprecatingly, that he chose teaching because he liked to hear his own voice and for which he earned the affectionate nickname "Honker".

I was a student in Trinity when Hilary returned from the UK imbued with new ideas on education. His fame preceded him and we were not disappointed. A debonair young teacher sauntered into our then Form IV as a swashbuckling hero with James Bond good looks and an easy informal manner talking to us and treating us as the adult equals he wanted us to be. He was to be our Form master teaching us the new fangled subject of Social Studies for that year. Thereafter he taught us History and Government in senior forms until we entered University.

My classmate, Senior Minister Sarath Amunugama, puts it well – Hilary was "the personification of what any intelligent student would like to be". He was, at one and the same time, the accomplished liberal intellectual who had read widely and could discuss any topic with an unmatched eloquence; he was the cultured sophisticate who spoke to us of contemporary trends in art, literature, film and theatre; he was the athletic sportsman who knew more about cricket, rugby football and other games than most others while continuing to play rugby for Kandy Sports Club and golf at the old Peradeniya Golf Club. All this while nonchalantly carrying the image of the playboy driving his Austin Healey sports car with the hood down and courting and marrying the beautiful Nandini Pelpola of Gampola.

Hilary’s bachelor room in Upper Ryde had a painting of a Parisian bistro which for us, impressionable teenagers, conjured up images of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Bouvoir and others discussing Existentialism over glasses of absinthe in which we felt we were participating! Such was the impact that Hilary had on us and, I dare say, on many succeeding generations of students even as he mellowed with age. Norman Walter, the British Principal at the time, complained once that we had all begun even to imitate Hilary’s handwriting!

In the classroom Hilary was always the serious teacher fascinating his students so totally that maintaining discipline was never a problem. He was constantly opening new windows for us to let in stimulating breezes of new ideas. But the joy of free intellectual discussion had to yield to the rigors of competitive examinations and after his first years of preparing students for University Entrance Hilary took pains to adapt his teaching to ensuring examination success. We were the grateful beneficiaries as more students from Trinity began to gain admission to University.

He coached the First XI cricket team and the under 17 rugby team and was regularly at Asgiriya in his sports attire or sprinting down the touchline cheering for Trinity with his latest offspring in his arms. At the same time Hilary retained his exceptional ability to let his hair down with his senior students ready to listen to confidences or talk man-to-man about domestic politics, international affairs and other subjects.

Born to an anglicized western-educated elite class he was ready to adapt to the changes that the 1956 socio-political revolution ushered in and took a leave of absence to study Sinhala. But it was finally the JVP insurrection of 1971 and the increasing politicization of all spheres of life amidst declining economic conditions that led him to emigrate with his family to Australia. His success as a teacher there was no surprise but there was an undeniable nostalgia for Trinity. He was the magnet around whom the old Trinitians congregated and his many visits to Sri Lanka and other countries were memorable occasions for his old pupils and friends to gather around him.

Dr. Neil Halpe, another former student, has frequently said of Hilary that he was the best Principal that Trinity never had. A recent article in our media discussed with rare sensitivity and perceptiveness the reimagining of a politician had he lived. In the same vein what would Trinity have been if Hilary had been appointed Principal? He did not apply because he was an agnostic knowing that Trinity would only appoint a practising Christian. Witnessing the suffocating role of the Bishops’ current appointees on the Board of Governors, the time is perhaps ripe for changes in the Board’s Constitution to ensure the sustainability of Trinity in a changing social and political milieu.

Just as religion and the state must remain separate for the good governance of the modern liberal state, educational institutions must be managed by democratically elected representatives of the school’s primary stakeholders – parents of the current students, the staff and old boys associations. That change will be a tribute to the memory of Hilary Abeyratne and will ensure that never again will the mistake of not appointing a dedicated educationist as Principal because of his unconventional religious views be repeated.

Jayantha Dhanapala

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