“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” These powerful words have been taken to a different level by the Rector of St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, Fr. Travis Gabriel, who will leave this legacy behind as he bids adieu to his “dear boys” this month. Be it rugby players, cricketers, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Leaving a legacy behind

Humility and gentleness were the hallmarks of Fr. Travis Gabriel’s tenure at St. Peter’s College

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

These powerful words have been taken to a different level by the Rector of St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, Fr. Travis Gabriel, who will leave this legacy behind as he bids adieu to his “dear boys” this month.

Be it rugby players, cricketers, basketball players or those indulging in any sport, the words that will be ringing in their ears as they walk onto the field have no ambiguity.

Simple the words may be, but the message or ‘life-lesson’ will remain imprinted on the minds of Peterites who have had the privilege of being guided by Fr. Travis even long after the school bell will summon them no more.

Fr. Travis Gabriel

Meeting each and every team before any match, Fr. Travis would bless them and gently but firmly tell them: “I don’t want cups and shields on my table if they are accompanied by bad behaviour and bad publicity.”

They have to strive to win, but not win at any cost. They need to be disciplined and have decorum on the grounds. This is much more important than getting a decision in their favour, he tells the Sunday Times in an interview, just before handing over the mantle of St. Peter’s College to his successor Fr. Trevor Martin.

Fr. Travis points out that his words have been adhered to almost all the time on the playing field and there have been very few instances of slip-ups where fingers could be pointed at the boys.

For many parents a first-hand experience of his kind of stewardship came a few years ago when the air was fraught with tension during the Big Match season. A rival school was to pass-by St. Peter’s College just as the final bell had let loose through the gates, boys of varying ages, onto Galle Road.

The match was not even between the parade-goers and the Peterites but there had been some bad blood on the field earlier in a different sport. The long parade — cars, trucks and bicycles — was snaking at snail’s pace on the sea-side of Galle Road, with some young fellows dressed in skirts when passing St. Peter’s, turning their backs towards the Peterites and flipping up their skirts in a provocative fashion. The consternation of the Peterites was all too evident and a fracas was about to erupt.

Suddenly from within the college walls, emerged the white-robed priests of St. Peter’s College, headed by Fr. Travis, to form a human chain with the Prefects, along the land-side of Galle Road, not allowing the Peterites to crossover, but urging the boys to go home. Not one of the priests budged, forgetting their late lunch, until the rival parade had passed without incident and their mission of preventing a confrontation was accomplished.

Raising standards and maintaining them have been the battle of this gentle Rector, ably aided by the priest community and teachers. Although he has had to tread the pathways of management forged by more flamboyant and colourful stewards, Fr. Travis brought with him his own inimitable style. Devolution of power to his juniors and trust in them that they will do their job without interference, have been his style of administration.

The hallmarks of Fr. Travis’s tenure at St. Peter’s were gentleness and humility, in the true spirit of a follower of Jesus Christ, with firmness coming in when and where necessary.

And the eight-year Rectorship at St. Peter’s was not the first time that his path crossed those of the Peterites. Although not an old boy of the college (having had his elementary education at St. Thomas’s College, Kotte), Fr. Travis had been the Sports Coordinator in the 1980s followed by stints as Primary Principal and also Vice Rector, serving in different capacities for 22 years of the college’s 92-year existence. The calling to become a priest had come as a boy for Fr. Travis when he took up the duties of an altar-server for his Parish Priest at Kotte, after which it was Minor Seminary at St. Aloysius Seminary, Borella; National Seminary at Ampitiya; and a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Colombo followed by a Master’s in Education Administration in America.

“It has not been easy, there have been the difficult times,” he concedes when asked about managing nearly 4,300 boys, ranging in age from five to about 19 years, from all communities and religions, as well as different backgrounds.

A majority of the boys listen and fall in line, he says, adding that usually there are only a few trouble-makers. In an era when corporal punishment such as caning is prohibited, “to discipline the few trouble-makers we seek the cooperation of parents. If a boy continues to misbehave we are compelled to suspend him, but that is the worst-case scenario”.

Sports has also not been the sole focus of this Rector. Academics and other extracurricular activities have been given their due place.
“I have tried to place emphasis on education,” he says and the improvement in the success rates at both the Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations reflect the effort that has gone in this direction and underscores the fact that academics have not been sacrificed at the altar of sports.

Fr. Travis has also been instrumental in reviving the rich tradition of music and drama that St. Peter’s has been well-known for in the days of yore. Not only has the Oriental Choir won all-island awards in the past years, the Western Choir swept the boards last year but the Peterites have also taken to the stage at the Lionel Wendt in two major drama productions in 2010 (‘A Christmas Carol’) and just last year on December 6, 7 and 8 (‘A Christmas Wish – The Musical’) to public ovation.

This is while securing all-island wins in rugger four times, twice triumphing at the ‘Battle of the Saints’ Big Matches of cricket against St. Joseph’s College, Maradana, and emerging as overall Champions in tennis in six consecutive years.

For Fr. Travis, the challenge has been to bring together the ‘Peterite Family’ – teachers, old boys, parents and the Welfare Society to channel not only their collective resources but also their talents for the well-being of the schoolboys

Commending the old boys for their “immense support”, Fr. Travis cites the example of how they helped establish Sports Foundations for every sport and the Academic Foundation which looks to improve skills such as leadership of the students and aid staff development to motivate the teachers.

Even though he would be no stranger at St. Joseph’s College, having been the Vice Rector there from 2001 to 2005, the emotion over St. Peter’s College which “has become more than my home” is tangible.

“It’s very sad to leave,” says Fr. Travis, a sentiment which would be echoed not only by his “dear boys” but also teachers and other staff, old boys and parents.

- Kumudini Hettiarachchi

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