Prof Ashley Halpe :Ecce Homo - Behold the Man! | Sunday Observer

Prof Ashley Halpe :Ecce Homo - Behold the Man!

13 November, 2016

It is with profound sorrow that I wish to record the passing away of Prof Ashley Halpe who was closely associated with the University of Peradeniya for over 60 years as student, lecturer, professor, Head of the Department, and Faculty Dean, as well as in key student services positions.

Prof Halpe was quintessentially a renaissance figure, combining the qualities of an outstanding scholar, an organic intellectual with a uniquely creative spirit, which led him to be an internationally recognized poet, painter, translator and dramaturge.

He was a remarkably sensitive and caring human being who nurtured six generations of students at this university and beyond, serving as guide, philosopher, and friend to all who sought his succor, whether they were behind bars or behind in their work.

The image of Prof Halpe’s regular visits to students incarcerated in 1971, bearing books and victuals, that are food for mind and body, and his subsequent support to bring them back to complete their degrees, will never be forgotten by those who, as a direct result of this, have since achieved the highest academic and administrative honors.

Ashley Halpe graduated from the then University of Ceylon in 1956 with a First Class in English, having been among the first batches of students to be moved to the newly established University Campus at Peradeniya. Joined the Faculty as Assistant Lecturer in English in 1957, he served the University for 42 years until his retirement in 1998. He was placed first in the country in the Civil Service Examination, but chose to remain in academia.

Appointed Professor of English at the young age of 31, Ashley Halpe served as Head, Department of English, for 25 years except for a brief period from 1974 to 1977, when he served as the Head of the Department of English at the Vidyalankara University Campus when the Department of English was moved to Kelaniya as part of a plan of university reorganisation.

Among his most important contributions to English studies are the concessions that he won from the Ministry, to admit students for English on the basis of what we now know as the special or additional intake, also to admit teachers of English from state sector schools who had performed well at the first Examination in Arts in the External Degree program to the University Degree programs in English, and the introduction of the total immersion course in English to the teaching program at the English Teacher Training Colleges.

He was also instrumental in introducing the study of ‘French’ to the Degree Program of Arts in the University of Peradeniya.

During his long years in University service, he served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University Proctor, and Director of Student Welfare. Prof Halpe’s contribution to the University was not confined to the Department of English.

He was instrumental in the formation of the Department of Fine Arts and in bringing the three language departments closer together through joint programs, including through formulating new courses.

Professor Ashley Halpe’s contribution to student life was not confined to teaching. As Director of Student Welfare, during a particularly troubled period of University history in 1971, he discharged his responsibility with a degree of commitment that is still remembered with gratitude by those students helped by him.

In 1983 Prof Halpe worked above and beyond the call of duty to protect students from organized ethnic confrontations, thereby even helping to save lives.

His art was an integral part of his personality and grew out of his commitment to humanist values in a world in which they were becoming increasingly rare and unpopular.

He was also an active theatre person and the University Dramatic Society (DramSoc) has had a special relationship- with Prof Halpe from its inception. He not only designed and directed a dozen play productions for the DramSoc, he also ensured that it remained active during his tenure as senior treasurer.

In addition to his scholarly publications, Prof Halpe was also known for his translations of fiction from Sinhala to English (notably of Martin Wickramasinghe), his poetry, and his paintings. For his contribution to Letters and Arts the Government of Sri Lanka has honoured him with the titles ‘Kalakeerthi’, ‘Vishvaprasadini’, and, most recently, ‘Sahitya Raina’, and the French Government with the title of ‘Chevalier’.

Prof Halpe was, above all, the gentlest and most sensitive of beings whose humanity and commitment to this institution and its highest ideals, continue to be a beacon of light to Peradeniya, the higher education sector itself, and the wider Sri Lankan community.

He has touched the lives of thousands of students from all walks of life to whom his loss will be irreparable. He was one of the last epochal men in whom the qualities of teacher, artist, scholar and human being were perfectly integrated.

In keeping his faith, may his soul be granted Eternal Rest.

All are welcome, especially, those who have been touched by him, for a Thanksgiving Memorial Mass presided by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at St. Mary’s Church, Dehiwala at 4pm on Saturday, November 19.

- Prof Arjuna Parakrama.