ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 21, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 21

In times of turbulence he showed courage and compassion

S. J. Walpita

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of the death of S.J. Walpita on June 2, this year. Mr. Walpita completed his secondary school education at Royal College, Colombo where he had a brilliant career winning several prizes and being awarded the ‘Rupasinghe Scholarship’. In 1937 he entered the then University College, Colombo receiving the award of the University Entrance scholarship in Physics. He continued to perform brilliantly in his studies winning several prizes and was awarded a degree in Special Physics with upper second class honours. He was awarded the prestigious ‘Coomaraswamy’ prize on the results of the final degree examination and held appointment as Research Assistant and Demonstrator in Physics until he joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1945.

I first met Mr. Walpita in mid 1959 when I was a junior Cadet in the CCS and he a highly respected senior holding the post first of Additional Controller and then Controller of Establishments in the General Treasury from 1958 to 1960. This was a period of turbulence in the Public Service with numerous trade unions flexing their muscle, while the Treasury endeavoured to absorb into the various combined services the large number of persons who had become unemployed consequent to the closure of the UK bases in Ceylon and had been assured by the Government that they would be found employment on fair terms in the public services. Many persons, who had looked forward to a lifetime of service in the Bases on attractive wages suddenly found themselves unemployed, in their mid forties, without technical or professional skills. There were strong representations by those in service against lateral recruitment, but Mr. Walpita who took a compassionate view of these problems, was able, in most cases, to tactfully resolve issues with the unions and to fit these persons into relatively fair positions.

He went on to serve the country in many prestigious and responsible positions as Secretary/Public Service Commission, and then Secretary to the Governor General from 1960 to 1964. From 1964 to 1965 he functioned as Director/ Technical Education & Training in the Ministry of Education. In 1964 he led the Government Delegation to the Asian Regional Seminar on National Planning and Vocational Training held in Malaysia. His dedicated services in this field were greatly appreciated by his colleagues and students, who sent several letters of appreciation of his services, when he was appointed in 1965 as Permanent Secretary/Ministry of Industries and Fisheries. As Permanent Secretary/Industries and Fisheries he led the Government Delegation to the ‘Asian Conference on Industrialization’ sponsored by ECAFE in Manila, Philippines. In 1966, at the special request of the Government, he accepted the appointment as the Vice Chancellor, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and at the same time retired from the Public Service. Mr. Walpita took up this appointment at a time of severe turmoil and turbulence at the university due to high levels of unrest amongst the students. This was best highlighted by the fact that prior to his appointment the Vice Chancellor’s Residence known as the ‘Lodge’ had been burnt and destroyed by unruly elements.

Mr. Walpita’s qualities of compassionate study of all grievances, fairplay and justice to all irrespective of their connections, high levels of efficiency and integrity, stood him in good stead and the turbulence at the University faded away and he was able to obtain the ready support of the distinguished academics who appreciated his high qualities, and bring the university to an even keel.

At the time of Mr.Walpita’s resignation as Vice Chancellor in June 1968, his colleagues at the university, amongst whom were distinguished academics such as Professor Ponnamperuma and Professor E. O. E. Pereira, unanimously recorded their appreciation through a resolution which stated, inter alia, “Mr. Ponnamperuma said that Mr. Walpita took charge of this University at one of the most difficult periods in the history of the University in Ceylon. Mr. Walpita had also to shoulder the great burden of working under a new Act and also seeing to the separation of the Colombo section of the University of Ceylon. He stated that Mr. Walpita worked conscientiously and devotedly with the interests of the University and the country always foremost..”

Subsequently, he accepted appointment as Ambassador of Ceylon to the Federal Government of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, and discharged his duties with his usual high level of performance until he relinquished his post by agreement with the Government in March 1972.

I was always impressed by his high levels of efficiency and integrity, his compassionate approach to all matters, the simplicity of his nature and the lack of flamboyance. He was the epitome of the concept of ‘silent service’. We, unfortunately, will not see the likes of him again.

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