Dr. Percy De Zilwa — the definitive Trinitian

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May - 2 - 2011
K. Halpe

We  are  gathered  here  today, as  children, relatives  and  friends  to  bid  adieu,  to  a  lovable  father, trusted relative  and  a treasured  friend.

I  arrived  in  Melbourne  almost  a decade  ago,  armed  merely  with a   student  visa,  an  enrolment  to  University, the  few  dollars  that  my  parents  could  spare  after  paying  my  fees   for  the  first  semester  and  most  importantly, two  letters, one   to  my  father’s  guru and mentor and  now  friend, Mr. Hilary Abeyaratne   and  the  other  to  his  friend from Matron’s Dormitory, Errol  Fernando,  and  a long  list  of  addresses  and  telephone  numbers  of  his  friends  and  contemporaries   at  School. Lost  in  a  new  world,  I  did  not  waste  time  in  contacting  as  many  as  possible. The  words  of  encouragement  and  moral  support  I  received  gave   me  the  confidence   to  adjust  to  Melbourne , and  needless  to  say, its  unpredictable  weather . It  did  not  take  long  for  me  to  be  introduced  to  the  Trinity  Family  in  Melbourne.

It  was  not  long  after,  that  I  had  the  privilege of  being  introduced  to  one  of  the  pioneers  of  the  Trinity  Family  Foundation  and  by  then,  the  undisputed  doyen  of  Trinitians, the  others, Harry  Geddes and  Philip  Buultjens, having  departed  for  a  further  shore. It  was  Errol  Fernando  who  introduced me  to  a  handsome,  stately,  elegantly  attired person of  gentle  manner  who greeted me with his hallmark introduction “Hello, I am Percy”. That  was  the  beginning  of  a  long , stimulating   association   which  despite  the  huge  difference  of  generations, I  would   only   call  a  friendship in its noblest sense.

There was no debate whatsoever about his passion for Trinity. He was  the  father  figure  to  generations  of  Trinitians in  Melbourne  in  particular,  and  Australia,  in  general . Since the inception of the TCK Family Foundation, of which he was a Founder Member, he has been a leader in all its activities. Most notable of which, were the Student Exchange Programs between Wesley College, Melbourne and Trinity and the launch of the Valesca Reimann Scholarships through the Dust to Dust Fund. It maybe a little known fact, that Dr. Percy would register the Trinitians who came from Sri Lanka under his private health insurance at his own cost and would act as the official guardian of these students during their stay in Australia and most of these students were still in touch with him long after they had left Australia. His passion for Trinity was particularly evident to Trinitians living in Melbourne. His attendance at events held by the TCK Family Foundation was exceptional, to say the least, and he was always seen walking up to the younger Trinitians and introducing himself and getting to know them. He  had  the  unique  combination  of  knowledge,   wisdom and  humility  that  was  able  to  accommodate  diverse  opinions  and  different  generations. The  regard  and  respect  that  he  earned  by  his  labours  of  love,  sincerity and  steadfast  purpose,  were  richly  deserved. This was no more apparent that I , his  junior  by  almost  3 score  and  ten, could  fashion  and  maintain  such  a  cordial  and    mutually  beneficial   friendship,  all  these  years ,  is  a  tribute  to  Dr Percy’s  character  than  any  virtues  of  mine. To all us Trinitians, there can be no greater inspiration and role model than that of Dr. Percy De Zilwa.

Dr  Percy  De Zilwa  came  from  the  top  drawer  of  the  Burgher  community, and  was  heir  to   the  historical   Saint  Andrew’s  Hotel,  Nuwara  Eliya,  whose  walls   still  carry  photographs  of  the young  Percy  De Zilwa, on  horseback and bicycle , hanging   alongside  portraits   of  his  forebears. His  vintage  is  so  ancient,  even  the  oldest  Trinity  Old  Boys  have  only  the  faintest memories  of  his  school  career. But there is ample evidence that he had a most distinguished and illustrious school career, participating in all school activities and excelling in his studies and sport. Having imbibed the musical talents of his parents he was a also an enthusiastic member of the School Choir, then in its infancy, and the Glee Club, under the tutelage of the legendary Valesca Reimann, whose versatility and enthusiasm greatly influenced the young Percy. He makes no secret of his affection and admiration for the teacher from Adelaide and her contributions to Trinity.

Dr. Percy shared a memorable story with many of us Trinitians about his very first meeting with his Professor at Medical College. Percy was a teenager who had just entered Medical College and his Professor introduced himself, and started a conversation. After they had chatted for a while the Professor said, “Percy, I am sure you must be a Trinitian”. Percy replied, “Yes Sir, I am a Trinitian but how did you know?” The Professor made his classic answer, “I can always tell a Trinitian!”

The implication is that Percy embodied the best of Trinity values. Of course, Percy himself would be the first to acknowledge his debt and gratitude to Trinity, which we all know, he has repaid with more than abundance. May I put it this way, Percy was a great human being who happened to go to Trinity.

He  was   academically so  gifted  that he  entered  Medical  School  at  17,  depriving  him  of  representing  the  School  at  rugby, a distinction  he  shares  with  the  late  Dr Willie  Ratnavale. However,   his  exploits  and  brilliance  on  the  rugby  field  thereafter have  been  more  than  adequately  covered  in  the  sporting  pages  of  Sri  Lanka.  Clippings  from  the thirties  to  the  present  day  reveal that he  was  arguably   the  best  centre  three quarter of  the  thirties. Yet he  carried these  distinctions with  grace  and  humility.

His  departure   from  Sri  Lanka  was  with  a  heavy  heart  forced  by  emerging  socio-political  changes. The  only  time  that  my  parents  and  I  saw  Dr  Percy  reveal  a  sense  of  pride, was  whenever  he  entertained  us  for  lunch  at the local RSL  Club, immaculately  dressed  in  his  Regimental  Blazer  and  Cravat.

To  David, Carole, Jennifer and Wendy  and  to  all  of us gathered  here, Dr  Percy  may  no  longer  live  at  14  Riddle  Street. Yet, we  are  all  reassured  that  he  will  long  live  in  the collective hearts  and  minds  of  all,  whose  privilege  it was,  to  have  known  and  loved  this  noble and humble soul.

May his soul rest in peace

Eulogy to Dr. Percy De Zilwa

16th March 2011

St. Johns Anglican Church, Bentleigh

By Kusal Halpe


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