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St. John's College Nugegoda - 70 years of service to the community

by Mervyn Herath & Jagath Savanadasa

The 17th of February 2004 was a red letter day for St. John's College, Nugegoda for it marked the 70th year of its existence. St John's is the leading boys School in the Kotte electorate and undoubtedly one of the best Schools in the periphery of the metropolis.

In keeping with hallowed Sri Lankan traditions the School's authorities together with the Old Boys Association and the Buddhist Association conducted a very well organized series of ceremonies to mark the occasion. These included a Pirith Ceremony, a Perahera and an alms giving to 70 priests which number concided with the age of the School.

The Christians conducted a prayer meeting at the College Chapel. Hundreds of Johnians young, middle, aged and old gathered at the School premises to pay homage to the institution that nutured them and shaped their lives in the formative and sensitive years. Many others we are certain who have had their education at St. John's, would have offered a silent and grateful prayer to the School and its past Teachers.

Glimpses of history

The beginnings of St. John's are shrouded by the mists of the distant past. Way back in 1915, an English School was in fact begun in Nugegoda with 15 students.

Five pioneering men led by the Vicar of the Church of St.John the Very Reverend John Henry Wickramanayake had secured a piece of land from the Bishop of Colombo and collected money to set up the School. Rev. Wickramanayke has could thus be called the founding father of St.John's.

The other frontiersmen in this endeavour of singular merit were Mudaliyar Abeyratne Proctor Salgado C. E. Ekanayake T. D. S. A. Dissanayake, H. W. Peiris and R. S. Goonetilleke all Wardens of the Church referred to.

It is a part of history of the School that a few of the first students achieved distinction in public life in later years. One of them, Dr. Ossie Abeyratne became the first Dean of the Faculty of Medicine University of Colombo and another the Inspector General Police. (At a much later time St. John's produced yet another IGP). We are grateful for the splendid start given by these first students.

But as far as the products of St. John's go this is only the tip of the iceberg, considering the stunning and prolific array of gifted men that St. John's produced regularly over the rest of her 70 year history.

Fee levying and mixed Institution

By 1920 the School which was mixed had on its roll about 80 students and was also fee levying. This latter element continued until about the mid 1950's. Names like Father Wickramasinghe Rev. J. P. Ramanayaka both of whom headed the Institution feature prominently in its formative years.

During the decade of the 1920's, foundations were laid for a new building and official recognition is reported to have been granted affording the School the status of what was known as a grant in-aid Institution. Towards the end of 1920 the School was elevated from a Junior Secondary Institution to a Secondary School.

The Decade of 1930's

Political agitation for constitutional reforms began to gather momentum during the early 1930's .There was also a clear rise of nationalist sentiment too during this period and perceptible changes on other fronts as well. Education was one such area.

For example the citizens of Nugegoda, a lively and intellectually vibrant environ of Colombo even as far back as the 1930's began to oppose a mixed system of education They were instead urging for segregation of the sexes in education.

This led to the establishment of two Schools the St. John's Boys and the St. John's Girl School. In 1935 the Warden of St. Thomas's College Mount Lavinia Canon R. S. de Saram laid the foundations for the Boys School which was named the College of St. John.

Yet well within the British era by the 1930's great Schools like Royal S. Thomas' and Trinity which the British founded had long been in existence and they were followed by the establishment of several other excellent seats of learning in various parts of the country.

A positive feature of the mixed legacy that the British left behind in this country was the educational system .Some tend to be critical of the element of elitism in it but its indisputable merit lay in the well rounded nature of the training imparted to youngsters.

There was within the educational system a judicious mixture of classroom work with physical training which contributed to the country having generations of balanced men who gradually assumed leadership in the governance of the country. The College of St. John's though small followed the pattern and trends prevailing among the bigger schools. St. John's gradually proved to be a blessing to the multi-racial, cosmopolitan community of Nugegoda and its surrounding areas.

A crucial input to education is decipline and the inculcation of such decipline rested to a high degree on the Teachers.

Fortunately for this country in the days gone by teaching was considered a noble profession and teachers were invariably treated with deep respect justifiably on account of their impeccable conduct and dedication which were a part of the total task of educating the young.

St. John's and the 1940's

Nugegoda had been an exemplary multi-racial community for a long period of time until communal politics wreaked havoc on the entire nation towards the end of the 1950's .

One of the cardinal attributes of members of such a community was their non-discriminatory attitude to fellow men and women In other words you treated each and every citizen equally. Schools such as St. John's , Nugegoda played a valid role in fostering a multi-ethnic society among the young. Equally vital to the propagation of multi-ethnicity and harmony among the young and impressonable was the body of teachers that St. John's had in those distant days who themselves were of different racial background principally Sinhalese Tamils and Muslims .

Education at St. John's from the outset and until the change in language policy was in English which enabled most Johnians of those years to be proficient in that language.

In point of fact one of the greatest contributions that St. John's made to this country lay in bringing up generations of students who treated each other (from different racial and religious backgrounds)on an equal basis.

St. John's during the 1940's had increased its student population to around 700.Of this number the Sinhalese formed about 50% of the Tamils approximately 20% and being located in a Burgher stronghold another 20% were from the Burgher community and the balance 10% Muslims together with a sprinking of students of Malay and Chinese origin.

In the forties , we were yet in an heirarchical age. But such unwritten stratification of society did not subject people to indignity and humiliation. It is a fact that we were then in an age of reason in which human rights and social justice prevailed to a high degree but conversely have declined to degrading levels today.

The golden years

The golden age of St. John's blissfully concided with the attainment of Independence from British Colonial rule. Norms, Standards, traditions had within a matter of two decades taken root at St. John's.

The stewardship of able Principals like Rev. Harold de Mel, Father Wickremasinghe, A. S. Navaratnaraja together with other stalwart teachers like R. S. Jayatilake and V. S. Jesudhasan the much feared Prefect of games gave St. John's an aura of a distinctive and disciplined School. Its fame and image were firmly on an ascendant curve as we entered the fifth decade of the last century.

It is important to stress another factor which contributed to the success of the Institution. This relates to the competitive nature of School life. Merit and success whether in the classroom or on the playing field were subject to instant recognition and a form of hero worshipping followed Whether this led to a superiority complex among the young is a moot point.

What however remains true is that it was the system that prevailed which paved the way for hero worship.. St. John's was making headway in education and sports especially in cricket Athletics and Boxing. We could yet recall the glorious victory that the G. R. Jackson scored over Royals A. B. Henricus in the Stubbs Sheild in the light heavy weight division Jackson won the Best Boxer's Cup and the cheers that reverberated around the grounds following the announcement by the Principal in the weekly Assembly seem to ring in our ears yet.

Similarly when an ex Johnian passed the Civil service there were cheers though more subdued and when George Candappa later an eminent jurist and Presidents Counsel secured six distinctions at the SSC exam the connected annonuncement at the School Assembly was loudly applauded.

Products of the early 1950's became bright stars in different fields in subsequent years. There were many Doctors Engineers Civil Servants Lawyers and Accountants.

Their names are far too many to be mentioned in an account of this nature.There was however the veiw not without some justification that St. John's especially in the distant decades was in some ways a feeder Institution to some of the bigger Schools in Colombo.

Admittedly in certain streams of Pre-university education St. John's did not have adequate facilities. It was in the circumstances inevitable that some of it's the exceptionally bright students completed their education at the bigger Schools in Colombo which had such facilities.

This picture has changed to a high degree today. But students from Schools such as St. John's even now proceed to bigger Schools to complete their education for other reasons such as the greater fame of the school or the recognition conferred on students to be called alumni of schools like Royal and S. Thomas' Going back to the era of the 1950's St. John's also produced outstanding Cricketers.

Even during the subsequent two or three decades this trend continued. Intermittently St. John's played some of the big cricket playing Schools in Colombo and the outstations. Several of its Cricketers played "Sara Trophy" cricket later. Among them were Merril, Oorlof, Wilhelm, Ludowyk, Gary de Silva, Major General K. M. S. Perera who also captained the Combined Services team, Conrad Tissaarachay and Ranjit Cooray who was a classy batsman in the 1960's and who represented the SSC later in Sara Trophy cricket.

In the 1970's Anusha Samaranayaka a fine paceman was in the Sri Lanka team that toured England. In the 1980's we had players like Sharmal de Silva who also represented SSC at the "Sara" Trophy tournament. St. John's also produced quite a number outstanding athlethes including Public Schools and National Champions. Incidentally the present President of the OBA Sunimal Rupasinghe is a former Sprint Champion , both at the Nationals and Public Schools in early 1980's.


But the most notable achievements by Johnians in Sports was in Boxing. St. John's has produced a string of National Champions and Stubbs Shield winners even as recently as the late 1990's.

Way back in the 1950's it produced a Champion Boxer who had the honour of leading the Sri Lanka contingent to the Olympic Games.Also in the 1950's, yet another famous Boxer was Dixon Kotalawala a National Champ several times over who became the first Director of Civil Aviation of this country.

The New Era

Educational Institutions like all others bearing a community orientation are subject to change . They have also their periods of glory and of decline. St. John's too had been a victim of this inevitable feature in the life of Institutions Social and political upheavals have at times affected St. John's seriously.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka the national educational polices have lacked foresight and vision to take into account the needs of an emerging economy. To put in a crux such policies have often been short-sighted.

Fortunately for St. John's her periods of decline in which indicipline affected the image of the School were short-lived. During the 1990's a gradual revival of the School in several key areas was clearly evident. But student indicipline has not left us completely and periodic violence had erupted which is also a tragic feature of Sri Lankan National life today.

In the 1990's St. John's recaptured some of its old glory both in Sports and in the area of Studies . It students repeatedly fared well at the G.C.E. Advance Level examination with many gaining admission to the local Universities.

Apart from Boxing on which its achievements have been already mentioned it did exceptionally well in Table Tennis and Badminton producing both National and School Champions.

But inarguably the brightest star, in recent Johnian history in fact someone who is well and truly on the road to worldwide fame is appropriately a star- gazer- Dr. Ray Jayewardene son of a former Ministry Secretary who ,is an Associate Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard University.

He is sometimes featured in world famous news magazines such as the "Newsweek" about his pioneering work in relation to astronomy and his startling discoveries of new galaxies in the Universe. In addition to St. John's, Dr. Jayawardene had also studied at Royal during the last years of his secondary education like a few other distinguished products of St. John's.

A notable example is Cyril Herath the current Secretary of Defence who too studied at St. John's during its golden era spanning the 1940's and '50's and later studied at Royal College. Also fortunately for St. John's an old Boy Hon. Susil Premajayantha became the Minister of Education during the previous Administration. It was however during his earlier term of office as Chief Minister of the Western Province that St. John's was able to construct a modern gymnasium, indeed one of the best in the Schools and also additional buildings.

Today St John's has on roll 3500 students in both its senior & junior Schools.

OBA of St. John's

St. John's has a strong Old Boys Association which is a quarter century old.It began with a modest 16 members but has more than 1200 on its roll today. Almost all its finances are utilized for the good of the Institution and its students. A significant feature of its services is the assistance it renders towards various school projects and events.

It recognizes and rewards talented students and supports those who excel in sports financially. It is important state that the OBA has amongst its membership a number of professionals and leading business personalities which considerably adds to its stature and needless to say its resources . An OBA Secretariat in currently under construction within the School premises which should be particularly helpful in conducting the OBAs' activities.

Much improved

It needs to be emphasized that St. John's today is a much improved School which benefits from the leadership of a highly disciplined Principal and a dedicated staff. It is once again in the process of improving its physical structure and the general appearance of the school has since of late shown considerable improvement.

We are confident that this trend will continue and St. John's will develop to be a excellent educational Institution that will blessing to the expanding community of an important area of this country.

We bless the School that guided us in our early years.

It is incorrect to state that this School which was subject to many changes over the next 20 year period was the forerunner to St. John's Nugegoda.

The latter School as readers will observe came into being in 1935 originally as the College of St. John. The real or factual history of St. John's proper if one may use the word in order to the more precise begins with 1935.

Mervyn Herath is the author of "Monarch's of Sri Lanka" "Flags of Sri Lanka" and "Colonial Kollupitiya" and has been a Consultant with UNESCO in which capacity he served in several countries in Asia. He was also a Director of the Marga Institute.

Jagath Savanadasa currently Secretary General of the Business Chamber of Commerce was also Secretary General of the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka for 13 years.

An author, his publications include Manuel of Procedures and Guidelines for Chambers of Commerce and Associations.

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