Fr Egerton Perera sj in the Island, 2 July 2013, where the title is “Emeritus Prof. D. P. M. Weerakkody – ‘He gave himself selflessly’
D. P. M. Weerakkody, Emeritus Professor of Classical Languages of the University of Peradeniya, passed away on June 26, after a brief illness. On Friday, his body lay-in-state at the Arts Theatre of the University for faculty members, students, and friends to pay their respects to a distinguished and dedicated teacher. This was followed by a Thanksgiving Mass at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University to honour a selflessly committed Catholic, who inspired the teachers, chaplains, alumni and students of the University, by being for several years, both the Senior Treasurer and Director of the choir of the Newman Society – the Catholic Students’ Movement of the University.
I first came to know Prof. Weerakkody in January 1991, when I was appointed the Catholic Chaplain of the University. Ever since, we have not only worked cheek by jowl together, to help University students to receive an integral formation and make the most of their stay on campus, but have built up a lasting friendship. Ever since he has been ‘Wimal’ to me, probably a pet name which he did not permit many to use.
I am not the best person to comment on his academic achievements. I know he has many translations from the original Greek to Sinhala to his credit, Plato’s ‘Republic’ being the most famous. I attended several of his prominent lectures, one on the life of Louis Braille at the Arts Theatre, another on ‘A hundred years of teaching of the blind’ at the Royal Asiatic Society, and another on the occasion of the Beatification of Cardinal Newman, at the Catholic Chaplaincy. He and his work were featured on radio and television programmes.
When he first entered the University of Ceylon as a student, he chose to read for a degree in the classics. However, he had never studied Latin or Greek before. He told me it was Fr. Thomas Kuriacose, sj., who initiated him into ‘the language that killed the Romans long ago’.
Perhaps the most outstanding and admirable trait of Prof Weerakkody was his dedication to whatever task he was entrusted with and which he had undertaken. This was true of his career as a university don of any of the many tasks he undertook voluntarily on the campus. A talented musician, at one time he was offering his services to any group / association within or outside of campus organising carols / bhakti gee / or whatever. This was a most unenviable task as, in recent times unlike in the past, students are wary of attending practices. With dogged determination, and often even berating the students, he would ensure that an excellent programme, appreciated by all, was the final outcome.
Prof. Weerakkody reached out to several differently-abled persons, on campus and outside, in many ways. For example, he would teach them how to use Braille, or computers. He even taught many how to read music notation through Braille. With funds obtained from the World Bank by the University, he set up a state-of-the-art centre to help differently-abled students. He invited me for its inauguration. After a few introductory talks, he invited those present to visit the centre. I marvelled at what I saw. There were, for example, computers into which were fed some of the books the students would be required to read. And so the students had chapter and verse – just a touch away. He marshalled the help of many volunteers to feed the texts into the computers. What amazed me was the dedication with which this university don reached out to the needy, literally spending sleepless nights in planning what was needed, in choosing and purchasing the best equipment, and setting up this centre. He supervised its functioning as long as he could – till his retirement.
The sudden death of Prof. Weerakkody was a personal loss to me – the loss of a sincere friend. The more I associated with him, over these 20 something years that I have known him, my admiration for the quality of his life drew me to an abiding friendship with him. There were many others too who came to admire him for the same reasons. And so, we would share our concerns, anxieties, joys and sorrows, with each other. Occasionally, especially when Fr. Derrick, who too had a great admiration for him, was visiting me, I would invite him for dinner, and we would have much fun together.
The memory of Prof. Weerakkody will continue to inspire many as his life did when he was with us. May the earth lie lightly over him. May God reward him plentifully, for the generosity and dedication with which he shared his many talents and resources, with many, especially those in need.
A Note from Michael Roberts: I knew of Young Weerakkody without knowing him in the course of my return visits to Peradeniya on and off after I left in 1975. As he was younger than me the news of his passing away is a shock. Alas. He will always have a place in my mind and heart. Way back in 2002 I was exploring the character of Sinhalaness in the Kingdom of Sīhalē and presented my preliminary findings on some aspects including the hatan kavi (war poems), at Peradeniya University. Weerakkody was there and was kind enough to buttonhole me in the corridors thereafter [a moment etched indelibly in my memory bank]. He informed me that my contention about the relative uniformity of the spoken Sinhala language across regions [contrasting with the story of English, German et cetera in their own lands] was a phenomenon that extended backwards so that the Sinhala of the 12th century was easily understood by most Sinhalese today.
His testimony on this point was doubly meaningful because his handicap of blindness rendered his oral and aural senses that much more acute. Though a teacher of the western classics, moreover, both his parents had been teachers so that his knowledge of the local languages and literature was also profound. I could not have had a better teacher on this issue than Weerakkody.
And so he was: an INSPIRATION for many, an epitome of LEARNING a person able to pass on these strands of erudition selflessly.