Since Air Chief Marshal Harry Goonetilleke’s demise, on April 11, 2008, there have been appreciations and eulogies extolling his achievements as sportsman, administrator, pilot and Commander. However, there is another side of “AVM Harry” (as he was affectionately known among those of us who were close to him).
He was an amiable, simple and very approachable person. He was a good boss and, as the cliché goes, “he never showed it, nor did we ever forget it”. Arrogance, snobbery, guile and duplicity were alien to him. He never hesitated to call a spade a spade when it was necessary or expedient to do so.
He was also a caring man who was very much concerned with his family and his friends, in spite of his onerous responsibilities in all his senior postings. He was Officer Commanding Administration and subsequently Commanding Officer SLAF Bases at Katunayake and China Bay, and later Director of Operations and Chief of Staff.
I remember the amount of time he spent with his children during their schooling. I often wondered from where he got all that energy and enthusiasm. He worked tirelessly for the Air Force; he was a dutiful and loving family man; he spent hours on the sports field, and he found time for recreation and relaxation with friends and colleagues in the Officers’ Mess or at his home.
He was a workaholic, an able administrator with an impeccable command of English. He was also a good manager of men, a great friend and a good bridge player. May I venture here to boldly say that he never interfered with his subordinates, as to how they got on with their assigned duties. He relied heavily on those in whom he had confidence, and he knew “the job would be done”. And to so many, within the service and without, he proved he was more than a worthy friend and guide.
Having been associated with AVM Harry for well nigh 47 years, 20 of which were as a subordinate, I am happy, and indeed proud, to pen these few words about a good human being. His doughty frame was symbolic of his character and his steadfast belief in truth, justice and unblemished professional conduct.
Back in 1978, the Air Force obtained from the Forest Department a consignment of 15,000 pine and eucalyptus saplings for transplanting on the hills of Diyatalawa, in the direction of Fox Hill. The lush forest we see today overlooking the beautiful SLAF Camp at Diyatalawa is in no small way the result of his foresight. Perhaps some day this forest reserve will be named after him.
He and his cousin Lanka de Silva, both Royalists, were co-organisers of the first ever Royal-Thomian Limited Overs Cricket Fixture, in March 1975. As president of the Ceylon Society of Rugby Football Referees, he put into place an infrastructure for upgrading the standard of refereeing. He himself was an A Grade referee. As Chairman, Defence Services Rugby, he worked tirelessly to raise the standard of the game in the three Armed Services.
The Air Chief Marshal was always happy in the company of his friends and loved ones. He was jovial and fun-loving, and he had a fine sense of humour, even when someone “pulled his leg”!
He was a livewire whenever there was a party, especially get-togethers for ex-Air Force officers. It was he who would start the ball rolling with his jokes and humorous reminiscences. On November 27, 2004, a large gathering of family and friends and distinguished persons, joined AVM Harry to celebrate his 75th birthday.
AVM Harry was a devout Buddhist who practised his faith unobtrusively. He did not believe in any outward manifestation of ritual, and those of us who “worked under his nose”, so to speak, saw in him the four virtues of Loving Kindness, Compassion, Altruistic Joy and Equanimity.
Being human also means having faults. As much as all of us have our own individual faults, so did he. But it was never in doubt that he was a good, sincere, large-hearted and friendly man. It was my privilege to directly serve under his command, and I can do no better than recall the words of my friend and colleague, Squadron Leader JTR “Rex” Fernando, who said that the Air Chief Marshal was like “a comet that blazed across our skies, leaving a trail of luminescence which passing time can hardly erase.”
You will always be remembered, Sir!