Ashley Halpe: Peerless Scholar & Affable Mentor … a True Don

A compilation by Ishara Jayawardane and Ruwini Jayawardana: “Tribute- Ashely Halpe: The Professor of all time: Unassuming but charismatic, perceptive yet discreet,”… Daily News, 20 May 2016

Professor Ashely Halpe has rendered a yeoman service to the field of English music, drama and literature. He was a giant who had strolled along the corridors of Peradeniya University, nurturing many youth and bringing out the best of what they have been gifted with innately. He was the youngest professor of English at the age of 31. His devotion to English Literature and theatre has been invaluable, and those he has touched remember him as one of the foremost authorities in his field of English, a peerless academic.

‘A near-perfect, gentle human being’

Tissa Jayatilaka,
Executive Director Fulbright.
Former student of Prof Halpe

“Prof. Ashely Halpe was a very true, near perfect, gentle human being Professor Ashely Halpe is among the finest of Peradeniya men, I have had the privilege to meet and get to know intimately. He was above all else a university don in the finest sense of that term. As teacher, researcher, disseminator of knowledge and administrator, his contribution to Peradeniya (and to the Vidyalankara Campus in Kelaniya in his brief enforced spell there) has been substantial and significant. Perhaps the only administrative responsibility he did not shoulder in his time, is that of Warden of a Hall of residence.

“His is an under – stated personality with the humanity, humility and modesty of the truly educated person at its core. His disarming simplicity and unobtrusiveness were a crucial part of Ashely Halpe’s immense civility.

“It is his Socratic teaching style combined with his respect for the students’ innate understanding that enabled him to reveal to us the inner depths plumbed by great men and women of letters as they (and we) grappled with the eternal verities.

“Of the several admirable qualities of Prof. Halpe’s mind and heart, one that has stood out during his long and devoted stewardship of the English department at Peradeniya is his consistent avoidance of change for the sake of change. I think it is not incorrect to say that he was an enlightened traditionalist. He was however never dogmatic.

“For all of his human frailties or despite them, Ashley Halpe is a very true, near- perfect, gentle human being. It is indeed a privilege to pay this public tribute to him.”

‘His strengths were not limited to the classroom’

Professor Walter Perera,
Senior Lecturer,Department of English,
University of Peradeniya

“When I heard about Ashley Halpe’s demise I was reminded of the words from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a play he taught me in my second year at Peradeniya: “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ a greater crack.” He died the day that the heavens opened up and people in the island were distracted by mudslides and other disasters.

While those in the vicinity were able to pay their respects there were many left to grieve from afar. I was his student for a year when he was “exiled” in Kelaniya on account of the ill-planned University reorganization in the 70s and then accompanied him to Peradeniya as a student when the Department was restored.

“I subsequently became his colleague until he retired from University service.

Professor Halpe was one to whom Peradeniya was not just a University, but a way of life. No other lecturer in our time was able to bring poetry and drama alive as he did. But his strengths were not limited to the classroom.

He provided leadership in protecting Tamil students and staff during the infamous attack in the 1980s, showed tremendous enthusiasm in fostering the music and drama societies, and always endeavoured to safeguard the traditions of the University in the Faculty and Senate.

He was, furthermore, one of the kindest men I have met in my almost 40 years in the University In his passing, we have lost a paragon, the like of whom we may never encounter again.”

‘Always affable and approachable’

 Professor Dushyanthi Mendis,
Senior Lecturer,
Department of English,
University of Colombo

“Prof Halpe was a guide more than a teacher. I cannot remember him ever telling us the meaning of a line of poetry or a scene from Shakespeare. Instead, he would begin his lecture with a discussion of the architecture of the Globe Theatre, and then encourage us to imagine how the actors might have played a scene – how they spoke, who they spoke to and the effect the lines would have had on the audience. I don’t remember having many notes after his lectures – because what he gave us were ideas and questions, never a note, which got us thinking about whatever text he was discussing at the time – often in a completely novel and imaginative way.

“As a person, I remember Prof. Halpe as always affable, and approachable. I don’t remember him ever being angry, or even irritated, and I’m sure that, liberal thinker that he was, there must have been plenty to irritate him about the rigid university education system he was a part of. But the rigidity did not prevent him from bending the ‘rules’, if he believed that this would be of benefit to someone. In this sense I see him as a person who had the courage to be different, and express that difference, no matter what the opposition or consequences to him might have been.

“Prof. Halpe’s legacy lives on in the many students he has taught and who grew under his guidance intellectually – not only at the University level, but also at the school level. As Prof Arjuna Parakrama, the current Head of the Department of English at Peradeniya put it, with Prof. Halpe’s passing, we have come to the end of an era – an era which those of us who were fortunate to be taught by him will remember with both fondness and gratitude. With all due respect, I don’t think there are many academics in the Sri Lankan University system today who can compare with Prof. Halpe in terms of his vision, his humaneness and his mastery of the arts, music, literature, theatre, and his ability to inspire his students to reach for the best in themselves.

“Prof. Halpe had many characteristics that were exemplary, but if I am forced to mention one, I would say it was his humility. As a student of his, I never felt a sense of hierarchy in the classroom, of that distance between lecturer and student which so many teachers today are fond of maintaining and demanding from their students. And this is why Prof. Halpe was so respected by everyone – because he didn’t demand respect for himself.

“I would not presume to assess my former Head of Department and lecturer for four years of my undergraduate studies at Peradeniya. More than assessment, what I would like to express is a sense of loss – for all those students who will not have the opportunity to experience Prof. Halpe’s unique style of teaching, and to learn from him, not just a love of literature, music and the arts, but how to stand up for what is right and be a decent human being.

“Sri Lanka should remember Prof.Ashley Halpe as someone who always stood up for those who were oppressed, marginalized, or victimized in some way. During some of the most violent periods of political and student unrest at the University, he put himself at personal risk to protect his students and colleagues. Even before I became a student of his at the University of Peradeniya many years ago, Prof.Halpe was “punished” for his beliefs by the establishment. In spite of whatever personal cost this must have been for him and his family, he remained true to his ideals and his beliefs of what was right. In this sense he was the kind of academic Sri Lanka needs today, especially at a time when ideals are crumbling and intellectual freedom in our universities is compromised in so many ways.”

‘I continue to hear his voice in my own lectures’

Professor Sumathy Sivamohan,
Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Peradeniya.
Former student of Prof Halpe

“He is Prof. Halpe, and Prof….the all time Professor. He was unassuming but charismatic, generous and yet at times critical and strict, perceptive and yet discreet. Rarely judgmental, he was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to all, friend and foe alike.

“He stood up for the ideals of democracy at the University, at a time of ethnic persecution, and when students were targeted for their political views. I am speaking of the difficult times of the early ‘80s, when Tamil students and staff were assaulted and when persecution of student leaders had taken on a harsh and violent turn. If a student had been detained for nothing, he would be at the police station. I have also heard that after the 1971 insurgency, he visited and helped students who had been incarcerated.

“His lectures on poetry and drama were incisive and yet he did not ram anything down your throat. I liked his lectures, because he was very broad in the way he thought and taught and allowed for a multiplicity of views. But this did not mean, anything goes. He had a knack for nosing out the uncanny in a student. He did not lecture, give us themes to ponder, but allowed for the various voices within a text to emerge. I loved that. In his lectures, I felt completely relaxed, sit back and just let the ideas, the tonality seep through yourself. After lectures I’d go back to the hostel and would have not a page written about anything. I would panic. I’ve not learnt anything. Then I’d sit down and listen to the voices again, read out passages of Falstaff in Henry IV, and then I’d hear the biting critique of power there. Later, he and I taught the Shakespeare course together and I missed him sorely when he stopped teaching. What he gave the students I knew I could not replace, though I have developed my own distinctive voice and approach in teaching Shakespeare. My own teaching is vastly different from his, and yet I continue to hear his voice in my own lectures as I discourse on Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet.

“As head of the department, he pioneered the teaching of Sinhala and Tamil literature to English Hons. students.

This pedagogic move was a political one and was an important one at that. It was facing upto the challenges of the times.

“When I was a young lecturer, Prof. Halpe said that we should rethink the nature of the English Department, think of the excluded. He felt that we needed to formulate a response to the demands of times. One of us then asked, “if we don’t” He made the gesture of slitting one’s throat in response. This has stayed with me forever. Prof. Halpe had a capacity to change and he did change and compelled many of us to change.

“Prof. Halpe and Bridget were an institution in the University and in the English Literary- Language circles. We will all miss him a lot.”

‘A fabulous teacher’

Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda,
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science,
University of Colombo

“He was very kind, gentle, humane and always supportive of students. Although a big name in the academia and the university, he had an avuncular demeanour, commanding respect of students. He was one of those few intellectuals who had the capacity to transcend the limits of the nation. He was known to a limited circle of students and university academics and the literary elites who worked in English. Surely, is endeared by them because of his genial personality, artistic creativity and intellectual honesty.

His students and colleagues as well as those who knew him will remember him as a fabulous teacher, a generous and considerate colleague and a very kind human being.”


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  1. Pingback: The Halpes: Amiability and Aesthetics Personified | Thuppahi's Blog

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