Mahinda Wijesinghe in Sunday Island, 14 October 2018
I had the privilege of attending Vidya Jyothi, Professor E.O.E. Pereira’s 111th annual memorial birth anniversary lecture on September 13, 2018, conducted by the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka, at the Wimalasurendra Auditorium. There was a packed audience. Not being an engineer of any sort I had to cadge an invitation for this event though I did have a fleeting acquaintance in my youth with this nonpareil legend. It was an experience I still carry with fond memories. However I was fortunate enough to play cricket for our College with two of his sons, namely Lorenz and his younger brother Bryan. Their father and mother, Mavis, never did miss any matches their sons were playing in. I treasure those friendships. Alan, the youngest of the brothers left for Australia before I made his acquaintance.
Listening to the tributes paid by the engineers I returned home completely mesmerized. The presenter, Engineer Palitha Manchanayake, waxed eloquently on the subject of “Water Resources & Hydrological Forecasting.” Needless to say the technicalities went sailing well over my head but I did glean some of the characteristics which ‘Prof. EOE’ was well-known by the engineering fraternity – professionals and students alike.
Eulogies are notorious for their fabrications and exaggerations about the deceased are common practice, such as: “he was a gentleman par excellence, honesty was his watchword, gentleman to his fingertips, we’ve lost a legend, a vacuum that can never be filled, a mighty oak has fallen……etc., etc..” There is an apocryphal story doing the rounds that a close associate of the dead man, who was by the coffin, murmured to a friend standing close by: “My goodness, if only he was able to hear all these lies being uttered……”
However ‘Professor EOE’, richly deserved all such accolades and more. For instance, when he passed away, it was not as if a mighty oak had fallen. The so-called “mighty oak” at best may not exceed 100 feet in height. However, the giant Redwood Tree (Sequoia Sempervirena), the tallest tree in the planet growing primarily in California, could well grow nearly three times higher. Additionally, this behemoth of a tree has a girth of over 20 feet at its base, and can be compared in height to a 35-storey skyscraper! Usually it is said that comparisons could well be odious but in the case of Professor EOE, he stood tall just as the Redwood Trees. He was not primus inter pares (first among equals) he was the redwood tree amongst the oaks and accepted by those who matter as the Father of Engineering in Sri Lanka.
Prof EOE’s academic accomplishments began at Royal College, Colombo. He was awarded most of the College science prizes, including the Evans prize for Mathematics, the De Soysa Science prize, Mohammed Ali Arithmetic prize. Entering the University of Ceylon in 1928 he graduated with First-class honours, winning the Engineering Scholarship by securing first place in the Faculty of Science. This enabled him to win the scholarship to enter Downing College at Cambridge and had the unique distinction of completing the three-year course in two years, and needless to say with first-class honours of course. Interestingly, his grandfather Dr. Edwin C. Pereira was a member of the first batch of medical students to graduate from the Ceylon Medical College in 1872/73.
Professor EOE’s eldest son, Lorenz, never matched his father’s academic brilliance but won the coveted Dornhorst Memorial prize at Royal College as the most outstanding student in 1959 and followed in his father’s footsteps to enter Cambridge University and obtained a Master’s Degree in Land Economics. Lorenz did represent Cambridge in a few games of cricket under Mike Brearley, a reputed England Test Captain.
At Cambridge, Prof EOE’s contemporaries included a future Prime Minister of Ceylon, Dudley Senanayake. It was not always work and no play. For instance, on one occasion, as related by Lorenz, Dudley and EOE were riding their bicycles without lights in the streets of Cambridge when they were stopped by a policeman. The Cop held Dudley’s handlebar with the front wheel between his knees while EOE made a break for it. When the policeman asked the future PM for his friend’s name, Dudley said he couldn’t rat on his friend but his own name was EOE Pereira! Naturally Prof EOE had to pay the fine. There were other capers too!
The good Professor, as his son Lorenz, declared, had two distinct families, one his own and the other his beloved Faculty of Engineering, the students and his staff. During this period of the setting up of the Faculty, the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew came to Ceylon, and also visited the University of Peradeniya and met Prof EOE at the emerging Faculty of Engineering. The Singapore P.M. was so impressed with the efforts of Prof. EOE, he promptly invited him to come over to Singapore and do the same. Of course there was an incredibly generous salary, and other perks on offer. Though financially not, as the saying goes, well-to-do, he turned down the offer politely saying that he still had “unfinished business” at home.
Lorenz stated: “My father remained a poor man financially all his life but was blessed with an unparalleled richness of precious human qualities.” He vehemently believed in investment in people not in material assets. And may I add this has permeated down to his children.
He drove around in an ancient motor car all his life, a car that was “put together by pieces of string and bucket loads of goodwill.” The ignition key, when parked to watch us play cricket, was placed under the carpet in front of the driving seat, and obviously the car could not be locked. I know so because once I surreptitiously took the car for a spin with his son Bryan and on returning was forced to find an alternative parking spot. It’s an understatement to say that he was perplexed and confused as to how the car had travelled to another location but no questions were asked.
Although he was, on repeated occasions offered the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, he turned them all down as he maintained that his passion was teaching and not administration. Eventually, the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Dudley Senanayake, himself visited him at his residence in Peradeniya and requested him to accept the post for the sake of the country. Professor EOE reluctantly accepted the job at his former Cambridge pal’s sincere pleadings.
There are so many instances of Prof EOE’s acts of compassion, humility, and his absolute devotion to “invest in people” which was his lifelong passion.
Finally, there was an instance when Professor EOE and his wife Mavis, probably saved the lives of two youngsters and set them on a proper course in life. There was this blind student girl in one of the Halls of Residence at Peradeniya and who unfortunately became pregnant by her boyfriend (also blind). The Warden of the Hall immediately insisted on removing her from the Hall and sending her back to her village.
On hearing of this catastrophe, Prof.EOE and his wife drove up to the Hall of Residence and met the Warden and ascertained the facts of the case. As a result, this unfortunate girl was invited immediately to stay at the VC’s residence until a mutually appropriate time arrived to leave. This far-seeing humanitarian act resulted eventually in a happy marriage.
All the titles he received, including the Vidya Jyothi, the road opposite his beloved Peradeniya Faculty being named after him, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s glowingly reference to Prof EOE in his autobiography etc., etc., all these honors rested lightly on his shoulders.
However, as Lorenz stated during his tribute on the same occasion at the Memorial ceremony: “It is probably his greatest disappointment that although my father tried extremely hard to make me an engineer, he failed.” I can easily realize why. Lorenz was essentially a lover of sports. Be it cricket, rugby, tennis or athletics, he excelled in all of these sports. Hence right round the year he was fully involved in sports, so where was the time for him to study?Lorenz was simply a natural sportsman, and like the father, a gentleman. I am sure that Prof EOE would have been delighted to know that a prestigious annual trophy named the Lorenz Pereira Spirit of the Game Trophy was inaugurated for the school with the best sporting discipline in rugby – a game his son excelled in and represented the country as well.
My friendship with Lorenz extends to over six decades while his disarming smile melts all our hearts and that of many a girl too! And without doubt within all the Pereiras there beats a heart of gold.
Prof EOE was far more than a brilliant academic. He was a man for all seasons with a highly rounded education – albeit a brilliant one – articulate, cultured, a passionate teacher, compassionate, and a sports loving family man. Always possessing the common touch, he was noble in spirit with his feet firmly placed on terra firma, and like the giant redwood tree his memory still towers over all of us.