A great entrepreneur who was a socialist at heart
By Vijith Kannangara

Rabindranath Tagore put it aptly when he wrote: “Death is the stamp that gives value to the coin of life”. In the final reckoning, the work of the late Herbert Cooray, founder and chairman of Jetwing, is bound to take precedence over the life. However, this would not do justice to the man he was.

I first got to know Herbert Cooray when his son Hiran and I were 10-year-olds in school. Uncle Herbert and I struck up a great friendship. Later, I had the opportunity of working with him in the early days of my enterprise. We once toured the Middle East with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, when the latter was Foreign Minister.

I am fortunate to have known Herbert Cooray and seen him in action in his many roles, from entrepreneur and leader to husband, father, friend, brother and son –all over a continuous period spanning nearly four decades.

The enterprise he built and his pioneering moves in the early days of Sri Lanka’s tourism are well known. However, few would be aware of the grit and determination with which he undertook his task. The buck stopped with him, both metaphorically and literally, for the better part of the first two decades of Jetwing. He did not fear to focus, invest and reinvest in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. He did so in the best of times and the worst of times.

He achieved what he achieved and endured what he endured in a fair, just, truthful and honest way. His example has inspired the next generation, and the professionals leading the vast Jetwing enterprise.
Uncle Herbert and Aunty Josephine’s devotion to each other was remarkable. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a year ago. Celebrations in the Cooray home were never glitzy affairs. They preferred to celebrate in a quiet way, with their children, grandchildren, close friends and long-standing professionals at Jetwing, who were very much a part of the family, both in and out of their open house.
Uncle Herbert had a set of close friends, the majority of whom predeceased him. In their day, they were a spirited lot. Uncle Herbert loved a good old sing-song. He was also full of humorous anecdotes, with his own brand of humour, spiced with varying degrees of wryness.

During the major growth phases of his enterprise, he would put everything on the line, from his reputation to his last shirt. He had a knack for living life with a touch of lightness. I never remember seeing him rushed, even at the busiest of times.

He had an imposing physique and a nonchalant manner. He was also a man of few words, and when he did speak, he spoke in a characteristic baritone staccato. He was a unique personality.

The Herbert Cooray philosophy is as paradoxical as it is multi-faceted. Here was a man who was a socialist at heart but with the mind of a capitalist. As a university student, he was inspired by the likes of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx and Castro. He was a close associate of the Leftist stalwart Philip Gunawardena. He opted for a frugal lifestyle and he believed in social justice. His intellectual honesty made him a strong influence on those who came under his stewardship. This is most evident in the paths that his son Hiran and daughter Shiromal have chosen to tread. As a father, he had a subtle ministry over his children.

Thank you, Uncle Herbert, for being my inspiration, mentor and true friend. May your soul find eternal happiness.

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