APPRECIATION - DR. N.A.B (BEN) FERNANDO
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from Colombo
The e-mail I received from Mali Fernando in London, the daughter of my old friend Ben, giving the heartbreaking news virtually benumbed my faculties for a few seconds with shock. N.A.B (Ben) Fernando had suddenly answered the inevitable call from above on 16 March 2006 while attending a Methodist Church conference in Derbyshire, it read.
Ben Fernando (as he was well known) was a man of substance. In 1983, I met Ben for the first time inside a church hall in Kilburn, North West London, during rehearsals of Dr. Ediriweera Sarathchandra's play 'Elova Gihin Melowa Ava' produced by Namel and Malini Arts. Ben acted the role of the Headman (Ralahamy) and I happened to be the beggar of the play. The enthusiasm he showed in Sri Lankan culture, amidst his busy schedule, prompted me that he was not only a true patriot but also a good stage actor. During the three consecutive days of the show at the Tricycle Theatre in North West London Ben captured the audience exhibiting his refracted talents in acting with a deep and forceful tone coming out saying, mage nama Kalu Appui ( My name is Kalu Appu) which he adopted especially for the role from his natural soothing and calm voice.
Ben impressed me as a man of many talents. He proved his intellectual capacity not only by obtaining a Sri Lankan degree in Geography from Peradeniya University, but by becoming a student of the world throughout his life while choosing a noble career as a teacher which he continued with vigour in England by expanding his intellectual base further in obtaining a Master's Degree and then a PhD from the University of London.
At one point in his life, he seemed 'marooned' in thought and decision making on an important issue when the vacancy for the post of Principal at his alma mater, Wesley College, Colombo was advertised. It was indeed a hard decision for Ben & Ira to make after being well settled into a life which was dominated by his love for his children and grandchildren and to abandon a career he enjoyed in the UK, to take lock, stock and barrel and settle down in Sri Lanka. When I discussed the topic with him at the time he resolutely informed me that he was 'going to have a go at it' which was typical of his natural modesty. He indeed did so very successfully with the backing of his years of experience of the teaching profession in England and his clear headed management. He brought qualities of leadership to the role which were unique, thanks to his dual experience of starting his teaching career at Wesley and then continuing it in Britain.
He had many a plan in store to develop his alma mater particularly in the areas of sports and drama along with education of course, which he successfully achieved during his five-year tenure as Principal of Wesley College. He soon realised he was confronted with many challenges, which he overcame with his natural ability for diplomacy, and the obvious genuine care he had for the boys themselves and the school. It was realised very soon that Ben had the best interests of the boys at heart, and this overcame all challenges. The 125th Anniversary of Wesley College took place during Ben's tenure as Principal, which was celebrated in grand style with art exhibitions, many sports activities and a tableau of the school's history staged at the BMICH and a celebratory banquet at the Oberoi. He enthused many past pupils in the UK and Australia to celebrate this event. A new 21 classroom state of the art block was built under his direction for the primary section, instead insisted that it be called the 125th Anniversary Building. A room in this building has been set aside as a learning Resources Centre for the improvement of English in the primary sector which Ben and Ira raised £13,000 through the Women's Network of the Methodist Church in Britain to equip this centre with the latest technology and books.
At the end of five years, Ben decided that he had set Wesley on a positive course, and his family in London needed him. He went to London once again to everyone's disappointment. There he occupied himself again in sharpening his career potential by successfully completing a PhD in Education from the University of London, to become Dr. N.A.B.Fernando.
Ben Fernando was a pious man who seemed to have had a link with God during his lifetime. This very factor had made him a preacher for the British Methodist Church in the 1970s. One can only assume that God had recognised his services to Him by the very fact that Ben received the final call, unexpectedly, while he was still participating in a Methodist Church conference in Derbyshire dedicating his services to his Lord.
His patriotic qualities had no bounds. Having seen the vacuum created by the lack of help and assistance to his fellow Lankans in England from the so-called government institutions who were supposed to extend a helping hand, Ben Fernando initiated an association to assist his compatriots calling it the Association of Sri Lankans in the UK. As the founder of this Association, he went hammer and tongs to help thousands of Sri Lankans who particularly had problems connected with resident visas, welfare, housing, educational and employment problems.
His resolve to propagate and maintain Sri Lankan traditions and culture made the Association of Sri Lankans in the UK celebrate the Sinhala and Tamil New Year on an annual basis where the younger generations of Sri Lankans were made to understand their cultural and traditional values by making them participate, along with their parents, in a replica of activities which normally take place back at home during the festive season - a seemingly aimed operation on a long terms basis, which is reaping its benefits over forty long years continuously. Ben would have been the most happiest to see this year The Association of Sri Lankans in the UK, celebrating its 40th anniversary, but it was not to be.
Sportsmanship was another quality which had been built into Ben' character. He had become so used to taking every challenge in life with a broad smile. Does one need any more proof then when one looks at his athletic track record where he had completed the 26.3 mile long London Marathon five times, and the last attempt even after the age of 65 where in Sri Lanka one gets written off as a pensioner !
Ben had a magnanimous heart. He lived a simple and uncomplicated life, believed very strongly in Sinhala cultural traditions and values with a high degree of commitment to help his fellow beings, especially those who were in a helpless situation in a foreign country when official institutions could not perform. He was not just a Christian by name or birth, but dedicated his services to God by becoming a preacher, which he felt was a huge priority and honour in his life.
The loss of this dear soul, campaigner for social justice, intellectual, preacher, beloved and caring husband, loving father and grandfather, good friend and a jewel of a man, is only beginning to hit us all now while we shed a silent tear.
The loneliness and vacuum he left in all our hearts will never be filled but only the loving memories will keep lingering on to keep his family and friends all going with one consolation that he has gone back to his creator to be in a better place, a much suitable and comfortable environment to reap all the benefits and grace out of what he had sowed in this life as a kind, compassionate and most of all as an understanding human being.
Every time I think of Dr.Ben Fernando I cannot possibly escape from a mental frame that enters my mind where I see Ben in a Sarong, up to his knee level, wearing a black coat and carrying an umbrella with a prominent moustache and a neatly fixed half moon comb on his head, emerging with the very words, Mage Name Kalu Appui, which echos in my ears vividly from Sarathchandra's play we rehearsed.
May you rest in peace my good friend.