Deshabandu Dr. Mrs. Wimala de Silva passed away three years ago, on April 15, 2007. The founder principal of Devi Balika, she was only 32 years when she was entrusted with the task of developing a government collegiate school, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.
Under Dr. Mrs. de Silva, Devi Balika grew to become a centre of excellence for academically gifted girls. This she achieved in a relatively short period of time, through her strong sense of purpose and commitment. Today, Devi Balika ranks among the country’s leading educational institutions for girls.
In her autobiography, Dr. Mrs. Silva’s says: “I used to think of Devi as my life’s work. Now I view it as being central to my life.”
Wimala de Silva was born in 1920. Her primary and secondary education was at Newstead, Negombo. She hailed from a family of educationalists. Her brother, P. M. Jayathilaka, was a former principal of Ibbagamuwa Central College and of Thurstan College, Colombo.
Deshabandu Dr. Mrs. Wimala de Silva had an illustrious academic career, obtaining a degree in English, with Sinhala as a second subject, at University College, and winning scholarships for postgraduate studies. She obtained a Teacher’s Diploma and an MA in Education from the Institute of Education, University of London, in 1949 and 1951. In 1971, she chose early retirement to work on a PhD in education from the University of London.
Dr. Mrs. Wimala de Silva became Sri Lanka’s first woman university chancellor when she was appointed chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 1983. She achieved many firsts in academia. She was the first woman Sectional President of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS); the first president of the National Committee on Women, and a founder member of the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR).
She was a dynamic president of the Sri Lanka Federation of University of Women (SLFUW), and a council member of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW).
In recognition of her varied and far-reaching efforts, she received the Municipality of Sri Jayewardenepura Millennium Award for Service in Education in 2000, and a Presidential award for distinguished service in education and gender equality from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1999. In 1988, she received a Zonta Award for Women of Achievement.
In 1992, she was named Professional Woman of the Year.
In 1999, she received a Sarvodaya Trust Fund Award for her contribution to the education of deprived children.
Dr. Mrs. de Silva received an Honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 1985, and was awarded the title of Deshabandu in 1986 for her services to national education.
All the above make an impressive list of accolades, but we who were close to Dr. Mrs. de Silva, and who were influenced by her, remember her more for the spirit she breathed into Devi Balika and the humane qualities she possessed in abundance.
It was a privilege to have worked with an educationalist of her calibre. She accepted only the best. No short-cuts, no compromises. What is more, she led by example. She had the ability to motivate you to give of your best – and nothing but the best – at all times.
Her appreciation of diverse cultures was a lesson to us all. She could walk with kings, while not losing the common touch. Associating with her was an education in itself, a lesson in life that no amount of academia can teach. May her sojourn in Sansara be short, and may she gain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.