My dad passed away 15 years ago, today, October 16th, 2005.
Joe Fernando never published a book, was never featured in the media, but he had a knack of infecting everyone around him with ideas. He was my Google, Wikipedia and Amazon; the human search engine when hunting down bits of history, with a library in our ‘office room’ that introduced me to Greek history, Elizabethan poetry, Sri Lankan archeology and more.
His encyclopedic knowledge was legendary. He could quote Thomas Merton, Aristotle, Churchill, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Senarath Paranavithana, or Shakespeare –sometimes in one sitting! He once won the grand prize in the Maliban “Take it or Leave it” radio show. It is said that the show host, Tim Horshington, leapt into the air when he answered the final history question to win the grand prize, a Philips refrigerator.
In the evenings after school my dad would tutor students, often for free, fluidly switching between English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. Occasionally I would overhear him break out into Latin! He was a teacher at heart. At the height of his career, on humid Sunday afternoons, you would see him walk down Clifford Place, suitcase in hand, along the railway tracks to get to the Wellawatte railway station. Destination: Galle. His last post was vice principal, St. Aloysius College Galle, a Jesuit boy’s school.
I always wondered what kept him going. Much later, when I would talk to him about his work, I came to realize the driving force behind this dedication was his students. Including anyone who turned up at our doorstep with an exercise book and an assignment.
In a larger sense, we all sat in his class. Neighbours, nieces and nephews, my schoolmates, priests, vendors and the odd grownup that had happened to hear of the iskola-mahathaya (that’s ‘school master’ in Sinhalese) down the road. They would breeze in without any forewarning for help with essays and proficiency exams, notes for debates, and coaching for job applications and dissertations. He just loved to have them in his office room, crowded around a Formica table with ginger beer stains. It was Aladdin’s cave, as one cousin described it, stuffed with books and papers. He always knew where to dig out and dust off that biography, anthology or newspaper cutting you were looking for. If you had time for some sidebars, he would invite you to a long walk to Galle Face, and tell you an elaborate yarn or two about British soldiers who got drunk while on duty in Bandarwela during World War II. Or about the time he fell into a river when the boat capsized on his way to a funeral in Galle.
Yes, life was a collection of colourful stories to him, as those who listened to his repertoire of ghost stories, war stories, travel tales and embellished family narratives know.
A simple man, my dad, who impacted so many of us.