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19th July 1998

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"I'll never be knocked out"

By Delon Weerasinghe

Neville De Alwis: 'I came to do a job and I did it'As I sat across the desk from the War den of S. Thomas' College waiting for the interview to begin, he did not have to tell me that he was busy. The desk between us was piled high with files, and the aroma of food wafting across the room from the many platters of oilcakes and sweetmeats that he had just been presented with was quite distracting. "They even garlanded me," he mutters almost under his breath. There is a hint of amusement in his voice. After serving as Warden for the third longest period in the history of the College, Neville De Alwis is hanging up his gloves. His fifteen and a half year tenure of wardenship has not always been plain sailing. The constant pressures that go along with the job, and the question of its effect on his health have sometimes cast a shadow of uncertainty. But his story is one of survival and persistence.

"Two people inspired me," he says. "One is Bishop Swithin, who invited me to this post, and the other is my wife." He credits his wife with being his strength during the dark times in his life.

"Especially in 1995 when I had my heart attack, she is the one who helped me through." But even then he never thought of leaving his job. He sees stress as being a subjective thing. Everyone is under some kind of stress he tells me. "Even my Doctor told me that if I am happy at what I am doing, then there is no problem." He doesn't seem to find the job of being responsible for over 2500 boys daunting in the least. But after fifteen and a half years of doing the job, it would have been surprising if he did.

Those fifteen and a half years don't seem to have affected his enthusiasm either. "I look forward to coming to College. I love coming to College," he says. But coming to College every morning isn't the only thing in his job description. Sometimes he says things happen that remind him that it is a 24-hour job. "Sometimes people would call me up in the middle of the night with some stupid question like 'Is there school tomorrow?'

As you might expect, he has some strong opinions about education. But he firmly believes that an "Education" doesn't necessarily mean only knowledge gleaned from books. He says it takes all aspects of school life to contribute to producing a well-rounded product. "True, you come to school to study," he says. "But schools shouldn't be academic sweat shops. I find that in the long run it is the boys who got the more well-rounded education who do better than the full time crammers." He also is a believer in listening to what the boys have to say, "Talk to the children. If you open out they will open out." Neville De Alwis has always been a great supporter of sport as an essential part of a well-rounded education. He admits that there is some truth to accusations that he favours cricket. "I love Cricket. But I have never neglected any of the other sports. They just didn't ask." Cricket was also responsible for the most memorable moment in his tenure as warden. "Winning the Royal-Thomian in 1988 after 24 years. That was my most memorable moment."

S Thomas' has always been associated with long-standing traditions, some of which have even been pointed out as elitist. The times are constantly changing and one wonders if holding on to these traditions might hold the college back from moving into the future. But the Warden firmly believes in these traditions,

"Tradition is definitely a part of the College," he says. "There should be no change for the sake of change. If we need to change, we have changed in the past." But he says that he is very sceptical about "new traditions." "Just because something has been done a certain way for the last five years it doesn't mean that it is a tradition. We must choose which ones we can call traditions." The Warden would not be drawn into any discussion or speculation about his successor and the controversy surrounding the matter. "I don't know about that, but I am definitely leaving," he says.

"I've been slowing down for the last six months and I want to make a clean break. But it looks like I might have to spend even a month signing certificates." What he is not so sure about is what he will do after he does leave. " I must have a rest," he says. "I have been toying with the idea of doing some sort of legal work again. But why not do nothing? I have lost all my reading maybe I'll read. I am also seriously considering setting up a marriage brokering office. Lots of mothers are asking me to find them good husbands for their daughters." He laughs.

But as far as his legacy is concerned he says, "I came to do a job and I did it. Sometimes it's true there will be criticism. I feel sad about that. But you have to make a fight of it. I have been called the great survivor. With God's help I know that even though from time to time I may be knocked down, I will never be knocked out."

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