ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 25, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 52

Father’s legacy as an inspiring team player

Norman Gunewardene

To a wide-eyed and exuberant 16-year-old Ceylonese, the dawn of Independence in 1948 would have appeared a wondrous time, blazing with opportunity. At the same time, soaring hopes were tempered by the limitations of a world still recovering from a debilitating World War. Our father, Norman, grasped the limited opportunities available to him in a country that was still searching for its soul.

Norman has left a lasting legacy in the business and sporting worlds he graced. The second of three children, he was born in 1932 to a pioneering cardiologist (his father was the first Ceylonese physician to specialise in the study and treatment of heart disease, and also the General Hospital’s first radiologist) and an English nurse.

Like his father, he studied at Royal College, where he excelled in sports in an era when only the most academically inclined progressed to higher studies. Some of his academically successful friends included the doctors Lakshman Attygalle, H. V. Perera, Nimal Vidyasagara and Sounthy Perimpernayagam.

Sport was Norman’s passion. He excelled in swimming and rugby. He played in the Bradby Shield encounters of 1950 and 1951, under Trevor Anghie and M. Wijesinghe respectively. His teammates included Stanley Unamboowe and Devaka Rodrigo, among others. This was the inspiration to his two sons, who played in the Bradby Shield meets of 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977, and for his grandson in 2006.

On leaving Royal, young Norman joined the Navy in 1952 as a naval cadet (thus leveraging his swimming skills!). He proceeded to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, in England, where he graduated as a midshipman. He was among the first batches of Sri Lankan sailors to go to Dartmouth, a tradition that continues to date. That experience, travelling the world’s seas, gave him an international perspective.

Having married his childhood sweetheart, he entered the then budding mercantile sector, joining Aitken Spence in 1959, thus beginning a 43-year journey with the company, culminating in his being appointed chairman.

Meanwhile, Norman continued to pursue his passion for rugby, representing the CR & FC from 1954 to 1961, playing with the likes of Summa Navaratnam, Mahes Rodrigo and Kavan Rambukwella. It was a very proud moment for him when he was called up to play for his country, teaming up with Ashy Cader and Geoff Weinman to form what many consider to be Sri Lanka’s best ever third row.

These players were in a sense pioneers – the country’s first sportsmen who, though physically and technically at a disadvantage when compared with their international rivals, believed that Sri Lanka Truly Could! It may be said that Sri Lanka’s success in the field of sports today can be linked to these pioneers. Meanwhile, with his Navy background, Norman was a natural choice to be a part of Aitken Spence’s nascent shipping division team, headed by Englishman Mike Thornton.

Shipping soon became Norman’s passion. He helped elevate the company’s shipping division to a standard that became the industry benchmark for years to come. It was here that he teamed up with his lifelong working partner Michael Mack, with whom he had what was probably one of that era’s most enduring business partnerships. Norman’s business ideology was rooted in integrity. The hundreds who worked for him would have been inspired by his example and learnt that it is possible create a successful and profitable business in Sri Lanka in an ethical manner, without having to bend the rules in any way.

Later in life, Norman developed a great interest in golf and wine appreciation. His positive attitude in the face of obstacles was reflected in the last challenge he faced in his life: his battle with cancer, a battle he fought for two-and-a-half years with tenacity to the end. When he finally succumbed to his illness, his passing away was peaceful.

This is the inspirational legacy he has left us, his children.

By Ruchi, Ajit and Otara

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