Much loved educationist Bro Alexander bids adieu
By Elmo Leonard
The passing last week of Rev Bro Alexander 81, the most loved director of St Benedict's College, Colombo, weighs heavily on the hearts of many thousands of Benedictines in Sri Lanka and spread through the English-speaking world.
Bro Alexander's uncommon life of humility and poverty will remain etched in the hearts of all those who knew him, more than his achievements in the spheres of education and sports.
Following a fall he had in October last, Bro Alexander lay in a state of semi-consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital in Kurunegala and transferred to the hospitals in Kandy and Colombo.
Visited by hundreds of past Bens at the National Hospital, Colombo, he understood what was communicated to him and remained cheerful to his last, in spite of having lost his speech. Earlier Bro Alexander had fought out a bout of cancer.
The 147 year-old St Benedict's College counts past-student associations in Australian cities, Sydney, Victoria and Perth; Canada's British Columbia and Toronto; Dubai; New York, California; Paris and London from where condolences pour into Colombo, OBU Secretary Darrel Ludowyke said.
Bro Alexander was also revered by his past students of St Anne's Kurunegala, St Anthony's Wattala and De Mazanod Kandana, where he had spells as director. Beginning his career at St Ben's in 1950, Bro Alexander is remembered in his role of 1956 as class teacher, book depot manager, bell ringer and sacristan. He accepted the many and diverse jobs entrusted to him with humility and once served as Bro Provincial being the head of the La Salle fraternity, a post, he soon asked to be relieved of. Other schools he served as teacher includes De La Salle Mutuwal, St Sebastian's, Moratuwa, St Joseph's Grandpass and schools in charge of the Christian brothers in Pakistan and the Philippines.
Small of stature, Bro Alexander was often seen walking the streets of Colombo. It is widely supposed that Bro Alexander walked his errands empty of pocket and stomach. Old Bens who once went to Bro Alexander's room and found he was not there, noticed a net of old coir rope tied together in place of a mattress. His bed sheets were torn and darned and mat, more holed than whole. He ordered the intruder Old Bens to take away the mattress and bed sheets they had purchased for him, and forbade them to enter his room again.
The last of the great directors of St Benedict's, Bro Alexander retired in 1988 having served five years as director and having brought the Kotahena school back to stability following the rock-bottom-level, the College had sunk, under his predecessors during the 1970s and 80s. His hallmark was his attribute of not offending opposing factions, yet, a strict disciplinarian. Bro Alexander organised the St Bens carnival to raise funds in the 1980s and did not touch money. Perhaps, in tribute to Bro Alexander's great honesty and integrity, the legendary banyan tree of the College, shed its leaves, as in fall to enter its winter, unending.
I am a Sinhalese; we spoke English at home Bro Alexander, who hailed from a prominent family in Kurunegala, once, said. Bro Alexander's personality stands like a beacon among others of his religious community who served in Sri Lanka, coming from England (Bro Hardy, the son of the Rear Admiral of Britain), Bro Athanasius from a prominent family in France), and others through over a century, from all over Europe. There was also a Burmese, Bro James, who urged on, the renowned Buddhist monk Narada Thero as a student, to take to a Buddhist religious life.
Bro Alexander's oratory attributes included simplicity, spontaneity, sharpness and style, selected for every occasion, whether he spoke in English or Sinhala. His words brought the sun into every occasion. Once, when the aged Old Bens took on and won a soccer match against the equally aged Old Joes, Bro Alexander, when giving away the trophy, said that the Old Joes allowed the Old Bens to win.
Bro Alexander infused trust into his students by making it optional for a letter of excuse, when they were absent from school. When a class was without a teacher, he volunteered to teach. When he was transferred from a class, he informed no student, just in obedience to his superiors walked away.
Whenever the media carried anything in Bro Alexander's favour he took great pains to find the journalist and plead, that nothing in his favour ever go into print. It was better to ask a tortoise for a feather than to ask Bro Alexander to pose for a press photograph. Yet, the Old Bens went Japanese culture, when they erected a five storey building in his honour (2003) when he was up and about.
Bro Alexander spoke very little about religion; never about politics. He was never known to exhibit negative sentimentality towards anyone. He was laid to rest amidst members of his religious community, at Madampitiya Burial Grounds, Colombo 15. His grateful, knowing not how better to honour the self-effacing personality, just, continued singing hymns in English and Sinhala.
Under the Banyan tree
The Small man we see.
When in dreams of bliss
Mere Benedictines we kiss;
That image as it sprawls
Upon St Benedict's walls.
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Albert Fernando a legendary coach
The Second Albert Fernando Memorial soccer tournament conducted by the Old Bens Veterans Soccer Wing will be dribbled on Saturday at 4.30 p.m. at the College ground at Bloemendhal Road.
It is great that his former pupils who he made brilliant players from mediocre ones are continuing to honour the maestro who during his time as coach did wonders for the game at the college and at national level.
Fernando's achievements as player, captain and coach are legion. He led the college in the fifties, played for Ratnam Sports Club if my memory serves me right and then took to coaching.
To start with his school career, it is said that when he was captain, he had turned up two minutes late for practice and the prefect of Games that time that stickler for punctuality and discipline Bro. Ladislaus had dropped him from the team.
Fernando was one of the finest forwards (now strikers) at that time. But that did not matter to Bro. Ladislaus. To him punctuality and discipline came first and nothing else.
Fernando took to coaching if I remember right in the early fifties. Early is his coaching career he made champions of many Benedictine teams, that his classmate Vartharaja who was then the Ambassador in Brazil, organised a coaching stint for him in the home of world beaters Brazil.
That was the first time that a local had the good fortune of being trained in the land of the legendary Pele. Fernando trained and learnt the rudiments of the game and coaching from Tele Santana, Pele, Garincha, Alberto Carles and many other stars.
And when he returned he answered the call of his alma mater and took on the role of coach once again and what he did for many years turning out champions with regularity is still vivid in my mind and all the players of that time that made the college the envy of other schools.
In latter years Fernando who was my class teacher and I became close friends and he used to regale me and the others around with some rib tickling anecdotes of his adventures in Brazil.
When I became the Sports Editor of the Times of Ceylon, I requested Fernando to cover the World Cup that was played in England.
Fernando is to stay awake all night listening to the commentaries and when I called at his home he would present me with a copy written, giving every incident, and the goals scored as he was at the scene of action. Such was his versatility.
During Fernando's reign, was also the time when other sports such as hockey and basketball also ruled the roost in the school and at national level. Coaches of those sports who made the school and the OBSC champions were Brian Assey and Ram Suntheralingam.
It would be wonderful if hockey players and cagers of that era organise tournaments or matches in their honour like the veteran soccerites are doing.
Albert Fernando on his return from Brazil turned out some wonderful dribblers which was the hallmark of the world champions Brazil of that time. There were plenty of Peles, Garinchas and Albertos in that time in Denzil Walles, Rex Sebastian, Errol Anthony, Tissa Kodituwakku, Suriyakumar Seneviratne and Melvin Dabare.
By mentioning these names I am sure to earn the wrath of those left out. But that is how it goes. I beg to be excused.
Before the names mentioned above there were the Nicholas brothers. Sampooran and Nithi. They were magicians with the ball at their feet and they used to show magic by dribbling past the defenders even at times dribbling the goalkeeper to score like Denzil Walles used to do.
It would be admirable if soccerites of the past, hockey players and basketballers could get together and honour their coaches who made them the brilliant players that they were by electing monuments in their honour.
Cosmas Mahagama I am sure would ungrudgingly make the first contribution for basketball, Thilak Pieris for football and Dennis Rosayro for hockey.
The teams for today's game will be captained by Old Bens Greens Rohan Jayawardena and Old Bens whites by Neville Perera. Their deputies will be Tony Anandappa and Vijitha Perera.
So be there for an evening when football of the past would be put on display and fellowship at the club house in this season of good cheer.
Once St. Benedict's was playing a soccer match against a Negombo School. In those days Patrick Perera, Kenneth Dabrera, Cosmas Perera and Edward Sumanasekera and the writer would not miss a inter-school soccer where ever it was played.
In this game the players were being assaulted by the opponents with the referee who also hailed from the area not doing anything to stall the assault.
At the end of the game Fernando sensing a free-for-all shouted to the Bens supporters saying thus: Get back. No fights boys. If they give us a fight I'll give them a war. And knowing Fernando who hailed from Kochchikade this was not impossible.
When Tilak Pieries a former Benedictine and Combined schools captain phoned me to break the sad news about Fernandos death, I could not believe it, because it was April Fool's day. I asked Tilak - Are you pulling my leg? He said: No Elmo, Albert passed away this morning in Madras.
I could not believe it because it was the end of a legend and an era.
That St. Benedict's still remains a private school, credit must also go to Fernando for it was he, among many others who got us to squat at the gates of SBC and prevent the take over of our honoured and revered school.
Fernando's famous song was that Jamaican Johnny perennial - Last train to San Fernando which perennial ran thus - Last train to San Fernando, if you miss this one, you'll never get another one - and Fernando was that train and there will never be another one.
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