It is with profound sorrow that I wish to record the passing away of Professor Ashley Halpe who was closely associated with the Peradeniya University for over 60 years as student, lecturer, professor, Head of the Department, and Faculty Dean, as well as in key student services positions.
Professor 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 recognised poet, painter, translator and dramaturge. Professor Halpe 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 Professor 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 honours.
Ashley Halpe graduated from the then University of Ceylon in 1956 with a 1st class in English, having being among the 1st 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 in 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 remarkable contributions to English studies are the concession that he won from the ministry, to admit students for English on the basis of what we know today 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 programme to the University Degree programmes in English, and the introduction of the total immersion course in English to teaching programme at the English Teacher Training Colleges. He was also instrumental in introducing the study of ‘French’ to the Degree Programme of Arts in the Peradeniya University.
During his long years in university service, he served as the Dean of the Arts Faculty, University Proctor, and Director of Student Welfare. Professor 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 together through joint programmes, including through formulating new courses.
Professor Halpe’s contribution to student life was not restricted to teaching. As Student Welfare Director, 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, Professor Halpe worked above and beyond the call of duty to protect students from organised 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) had a special relationship with Professor Halpe from its very 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, Professor 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 Sri Lankan Government honoured him with the titles ‘Kalakeerthi,’ ‘Vishvaprasadini,’ and most recently, ‘SahityaRaina,’ and the French Government with the title of ‘Chevalier.’
Professor 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 4.00 p.m. tomorrow.