In Appeciation of Larry Schokman: As Sturdy and Productive as Ever in Florida 2005

Selva Kanagasabai, whose original title in this essay presented in 2005 [before Larry passed away] runs thus “Larry “Evergreen’ Schokman now foliates Florida”  …. while highlighting emphasis has been imposed here and there by The Editor, Thuppahi

During the 1950s, changes began to appear in the management of tea estates in (then) Ceylon: Although most of the planting jobs were still the preserve of British expatriates, political realities and foresight opened opportunities for young Ceylonese to enter this challenging and rewarding occupation. Initially, it was mostly Trinitians and some Royalists who were selected (probably due to a perception that Rugby players were better suited for the outdoor life on plantations). The presumption was “if you played hard, you worked hard!”

Following in the steps of STC sportsmen such as Vivian Blaze and Ralston Tissera, Larry was one of only a few old Thomians to be selected by sterling companies as a “creeper”/trainee “Sinna Dorai,” to be placed on upcountry estates if they proved to ‘have what it takes’. The high standards set by this group paved the way for more Thomians to be selected for these premium jobs. After 1960 (when STC beat Trinity at Rugby for the first time), the trend began to change and more Thomians moved into the plantations.

Larry made good progress in his career and was finally appointed manager of the Radella/Somerset Group, a first class property that straddles the picturesque Radella Club—home of Dimbula Rugby. The Radella Estate bungalow was also a temporary home to Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of South East Asian Command (SEAC) during World War II, while the troops used the Radella Club and its grounds for R&R! The stories of the many parties that were held at that location were legendary!!

When plantation companies were being brought under state ownership in the early 70s, Larry decided to migrate to USA with his wife Colleen, who had been assigned to the US Embassy in Colombo, before moving upcountry to experience the salubrious plantation life.

Not many who leave school at the age of 18 to start their working lives put themselves through a Master’s degree in Environmental Science/ Botany two decades later. He worked during the day and went to university at night and on Saturdays for seven years.

But that was only another challenge which Larry took in his stride during his new career as a widely respected horticulturist in sunny Miami. He has managed The Kampong of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove for the past 33+ years, initially as Superintendent and now as its Director. In the year 2000, he was given the Professional Award for the Director of a botanical garden in the U.S. by the American Horticultural Society

Located in Coconut Grove and bordered by Biscayne Bay on the east, the lush Kampong sustains a wide range of tropical fruits, flowering trees, palms, and plants of ethnobotanical interest. It also has a state-of-the-art science lab plus a 12-bed dormitory that enables university students as well as professors to participate in their education programs.

However, even this pristine area is not spared by hurricanes that ravage coastal southeast USA, commencing from June 1 to November 30 every year. Before the start of the 2006 season, the authorities in Florida had already decided on 23 names for the hurricanes and major tropical storms expected this year. (There were 27 in 2005).

Like others who are well informed on the subject, Larry attributes the higher frequency and intensity of these devastating storms to global warming (not just cyclical) and he, for one, would like to see gasoline prices rise higher in USA, so that people would be compelled to use more fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy. He complains that even though Florida is called the “Sunshine State” (like Brisbane), no major effort is being made to utilize sunshine to heat water and/or provide electricity for lights and air conditioning. He says it should be mandatory for every new building (plus as manold ones as possible!) to be equipped with solar panels, photovoltaic cells, etc.

During our visit in May, we saw several 75+ year old giant trees, flattened last year by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma that had been up righted and put back in place within days, using huge construction cranes and excavators. One of the trees—a 99-year-old Baobab from Tanzania—weighed over 100,000 pounds! Rather than lose these mighty trees and then wait a lifetime for replacements to grow, Larry and his team developed the expertise for a quick response restoration, by up righting these trees with heavy construction equipment. Some of the trees cost several thousand US Dollars apiece to place in an upright position, complete with sturdy 4×4 wooden supports and aluminum cables attached to the bases of large trees in the vicinity. A comprehensive pruning technique has also been developed to reduce the center of gravity of large trees and make them less susceptible to these enormous forces of nature that can wreak havoc in a short space of time.

 Countless Rugby fans will no doubt remember Larry as the speeding wing three quarter with that characteristic high knee action, who scored many spectacular tries for Dimbula, Upcountry and Ceylon.

Having left STC before Rugby was introduced there in 1955, Larry used his athletic prowess (as a Public Schools hurdles champion) to start playing the game at club level. He first played for the KV in 1954, and the only reason why he played on the left wing was because that was the only vacancy available! So, through trial and error he grew into that position! In 1963, when Stanley Unamboowe (a Royalist), the great but unheralded center three-quarter, captained Dimbula, Larry scored 27 tries that season—at least one try against every club and that included powerful teams like the CH, CR, Havelocks and Army. In one game against KV he scored 5 tries! Larry says that Stanley deserved at least 50% of those tries—all he had to do was fall over the goal line and score!

His outstanding Rugby career spanned 17 years, prompting sports reporters to call him “Evergreen” Schokman.

He last represented Ceylon in 1970 at the age of 36 and it was a travesty of the ‘fair go’ principle when he was not given the honour of leading the national side.

Now 71, Larry is fitter and more energetic than many men who are half his age: he cycles to work on a one speed that he refers to as his “Harley!” He is deeply involved in community-based horticultural, environmental and educational activities.

He is on the Board of the Tropical Flowering Tree Society, the City of Miami Beautification Committee and was on the panel of judges pick the most attractive Poinciana tree in Miami-Dade County during the Royal Poinciana Fiesta last month. Colleen’s culinary skills enabled her “Ceylon Mango Chutney” to win the first prize at the annual Mango Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.

During our recent visit there, the two of them took Debbie and me on a long weekend tour of Florida, covering nearly 800 miles. We visited EPCOT in Orlando and the amazing Ringling Brothers Art and Sculpture Museum in Sarasota. We even saw the Space Shuttle Columbia at Cape Canaveral, on its launch pad, poised for takeoff.

Larry remains Evergreen:  ESTO PERPETUA.

Selva Kanagasabai in 2005

In Miami, we also met our OBA’s second member in USA, ShirleyWijesinha (and his wife Marina), who opened batting with Buddy Reid in 1959.

His younger brother David has sent these two photgraphs of Larry and his wife Colleen, with the following note: “Larry and Colleen at the kampong . One standing outside the massive ficus trees. The other before leaving on a 5000 mile drive”

A SAD NOTE from David Schokman in Perth, dated 10 December 2020: “Larry was always so fit and well. We took the three grandchildren to visit them in 2016 as they had never met him. A year later he was sitting quietly reading the paper and he just had a massive stroke and never recovered.”

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