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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Prize-giving Speech July 2017, St. Benedict's College Colombo

A few days ago, I announced that Cyril Ernest was to be the Chief Guest at the Annual Prize Giving at his old school St. Benedict's College, Kotahena. I am now pleased to post his Prize Day Speech as a new post.

Prize-giving Speech July 2017, St. Benedict's College Colombo

Never, never, never give up! - so urged Sir Winston Churchill to his fellow Englishmen to fight the Germans during WWII.

Relating my own experience with this saying:

My fascination with martial arts began in 1968 and I never gave up my quest to gain my black belt, which I finally attained in 2008 at age 68. I achieved my black belt in Tae Kwon Do after three grueling years of hard training, with numerous hours of sparring, weapons training, speedwork, fitness training, breaking boards, and sharpening kicking and punching skills. I have been actively involved in Tae Kwon Do until a couple of months ago sans sparring. I am 76 today.

I love dancing! And, I have taken lessons in ballroom dancing. I find that my coordination and grace are much to be desired. I do have two left feet - to the embarrassment of my wife. So, do I give up dancing? No Way! No, never, never, never!

I love to sing, especially Karaoke. My singing might be nauseating to the listening audience, but do I quit? No, never, never, never! I sing regardless and enjoy myself.

Rev. Bro. Director, Distinguished guests, the Student body of St. Benedict’s College, the teaching staff, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 It is indeed a very profoundly humbling experience for me to have been invited to be the chief guest at the Prize-giving of 2017. It is a great day for all of you students, who are being honored today in recognition of your efforts over the past year, 2016, academically and in sports. I am told that the recognition for the sports achievements will be at the Colors Night event. 56 years ago, in 1961 I was at the prize-giving, awaiting to get my awards - how time goes by.

Before I go any further I would like to relate to you a short story – about a little boy named Johnny. Little Johnny was a very incorrigible and pesky fellow who caused enough headaches for his parents and everybody else that he came into contact with. He was doing very poorly in math. His parents tried everything - tutors, flash cards, special learning centers etc.-in fact everything they could think of. Finally in a last ditch effort they took Johnny down and enrolled him in a Catholic school.

After the first day, Little Johnny came home with a very serious look on his face, going directly to his room, and immersed himself in his studies. His mother was amazed. To his mother's surprise, after dinner, Johnny again went straight back to his room.  This went on for some time.  Finally Little Johnny brought home his report card. He quietly laid it on the table and went up to his room and hit the books again. With great trepidation his mother looked at his report card. To her surprise Little Johnny had got an A+ in math. She could no longer hold her curiosity. She went to his room and said “Son what was it? Was it the nuns? Little Johnny looked at her shook his head no. Well then she asked was it the books? Are they better? Was it the discipline? The structure, the uniforms – what was it? Little Johnny looked at her and said,” Well on the first day when I saw that guy nailed to the plus sign, I knew they weren’t fooling around. They meant business.

It is the same with the Christian Brothers – your teachers at St. Benedict’s College. Learn you will under their influence and tutelage or depart. They have dedicated their entire lives in imparting knowledge and discipline like no others. They mean business as Little Johnny remarked.

I came under the influence of the Christian brothers in 1958, when Rev. Bro. Alban accepted me as a student at St. Benedict’s. I was a boarder and this gave me enough time to participate in sports and studies. I did excel in both. I represented College in Cricket, Hockey, Track and Field and Tennis. I also represented the school in Spelling Bee and Do You Know in interschool competition. I entered the University in 1961 at my first attempt and subsequently Medical School in 1962.In those days St. Benedict’s College were the National Champs in Hockey, Basketball, Soccer and not too far behind in Cricket. I am really elated to see the success of the College Track and Field teams in recent times at a National level.
At a momentous occasion like today, I am expected to instill in your minds inspirational ideas and tid-bits that will help you forge ahead in life. I have taken some words of wisdom imparted by 5-Star General Colin Powell former secretary of State and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Services:

"Always do your best; someone is watching you.
Always do your best, no matter how difficult the job or how much you dislike it or your bosses, your work environment or your fellow workers. If you take the pay –earn it. Do your very best!
Kindness works – always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever realize. Kindness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of confidence.
As the old saying goes – to the World you may be one person, but to that one person you are the world.
Never walk past a mistake- make on the spot corrections.
Correcting a mistake shows attention to detail and reinforces standards within an organization. It teaches the aspiring leaders to have the moral courage to speak out when standards are not being met".

Over the years, I have admired and envied the exploits and performances of the following whom I hailed as my heroes (you may or may not be familiar with some of the names):

Sir Donald Bradman, captain of the Australian cricket team, the greatest batsman the world has known. His batting records will never be broken.

Sir Garfield Sobers, captain of the West Indies, world's greatest all-round cricketer - the likes of whom will probably be never seen again.

Muhammed Ali, brash and arrogant - humility was not one of his virtues. He proclaimed himself as being the greatest, and he did prove himself to being the greatest boxer. He was stripped of all his titles because of him being a draft-dodger, and in fact he was jailed. However, he did come back to regain his title as world champion in heavyweight boxing three times, and he never gave up!

Mother Theresa, recently canonized, dedicated her entire life to the service of caring for the sick and infirmed in the slums of Calcutta.

However, my greatest personal hero is a person named John Wooden – the greatest coach in any realm of sport that I am aware of. He was the Basketball coach at UCLA, with a record that will perhaps never be equaled or bettered. He was not just the most successful coach ever in College circles, he was a teacher who taught the students the great virtues of how to lead a successful life. He defined success as “Peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction of knowing that you made the effort to become the best you are capable of.” This is all one can ask of you. Do the very best that you are capable of, and then having achieved this, raise your goal a notch higher and strive to reach that level. Coach Wooden focused on the positive aspects of everybody's talents. Don't let what you cannot do well get in the way of what you can!

I am a member of two Toast Masters clubs in California, and in the course of our meetings I did give a talk on taking responsibility. The audience liked it and they urged me to include this in my speech. So, here it goes:

Take Responsibility

“It’s not my fault” – how often have you heard or said this? Everyone wants to blame their problems on someone or something else:
         Their parents
         Their socioeconomic status
         Their schooling
         Their boss
         Their friends
         Special interest groups
         Self-serving politicians
This isn’t a modern trend. People have been trying to wriggle out of responsibility since God asked Adam a direct question – “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent.

Over the millennia we have elevated avoiding responsibility to an art form by excusing, covering, evading, shirking and rationalizing. Your life is your responsibility, accept that fact! Someone who goes through life focusing on what other people aren’t doing for him, what they owe him, or the raw deal that life gave him never grows up. In some form he forfeits responsibility for his life. The man who thinks that society owes him a comfortable living thinks like a child. The person who grouses about how unfair the world is, and how riches and privileges are just a matter of luck or corruption still thinks like a child. The woman whose failures are always someone else’s fault is stuck in childish thinking. The individual who is content to live off his parents’ largesse or a government handout still understands as a child.

 Maturity means you move from deflecting blame to accepting responsibility. You move from being a passive observer to an initiator. You move from expecting things to providing them.

Maturity means seizing your God-given power to direct your own life, to welcome challenge, to surmount obstacles, to achieve victories.

Blaming other people for your problems is a trap. The person who is responsible for you is you.

Quoting from the book of Proverbs from the Bible: "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap". If you don’t like what you are reaping, take a hard look at what you are sowing – and make some changes.

It is with sadness and trepidation that I chose to include my take on the tragedy of the civil war that divided our wonderful land. It is now time for reconciliation and not retribution. I realize the suffering and uncertainties of life that our people endured during this harsh period in our history – for almost 30 long years. One has to learn from this experience and not commit the same mistakes, lest there be similar turmoil in the future. One has to realize the prime reason for this turn of events – the unfair treatment of minorities whether of ethnic or religious origin. Our heritage and our genes are predetermined. We have no control over this. It is by a queer quirk of fate that one is born a Tamil or a Sinhalese; a Catholic or a Buddhist; a Hindu or a Muslim. One’s views will be entirely different if one was born into an ethnic or religious group opposite that of the majority.

In the adjudication of any conflict, you have to consider three sides to any story - your side, my side, and the correct version.

You are the future leaders of Sri Lanka. Please nurture it; ensure that all religious and ethnic groups are treated equally well. Then, there shall be no strife or tragedies like the one we have endured in recent times.

The teachings and guidance by the Christian Brothers is exemplary in this regard. We are so fortunate to have come under such great influence in guiding our lives. I am ever so grateful that I was able to come under their influence. Discipline, justice, and fair play are what we learned. These precepts were hammered into our heads day-in and day-out. Enjoy and learn from the fruits of their wisdom.

What great teachers. What great influence. They deserve a round of applause.

In the course of my duties as a Cardiologist, I do try to advise my patients on the various risk factors that may affect the heart. In this regard, I talk to them about smoking and urge my patients to quit smoking. Some patients take the advise kindly, and others get annoyed. At these times I am reminded of the advise given by my surgical professor in medical school who told us: "Never try to teach a pig to sing - for two reasons, 1. It is a waste of time, and 2. you annoy the pig".

I would like to share a poem written by Michale Josephson that I cherish, the title, "What Will Matter":

What Will Matter?
By Michael Josephson

Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected whether treasured or forgotten will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter if you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.

So what will matter?
How will the value of your days be measured?

What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.

Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.

I will just take one more minute of your time. When you graduate, you are an alumnus of the college. In my opinion, a Benedictine is recognized by his honesty! By his integrity! By his uprightness! By his demeanor as a well-disciplined man! By his loyalty! Lead a life that you will be recognized as a Benedictine from the very outset, not needing any prompting from anybody for that recognition.

The greater danger for most of us, is not that our aim is too high and we miss it; but that it is too low and we reach it. As the college anthem proclaims - High be your aim in life's onward view. Aim to excel in what ever you do. Always move forward. If you do not excel, you will stagnate or degenerate. There are two alternatives to forward motion - backward motion or idleness. Moving backwards is degeneration. Not moving at all is stagnation. The direction of your actions is your choice.

My sincere wishes to all of you to achieve the goals that you have set for yourselves. I leave you with these parting words from Sir Winston Churchill - Never, never, never,  ever (added for greater emphasis) give up your quest for your goals!

I would like to conclude with a joke. A drunkard (fully inebriated) was staggering out of a bar. He bumped into two priests walking along the sidewalk. He stopped them, "your holinesses" he proclaimed, "I am Jesus Christ!" The older of the two priests, looked at the man and told him, "Son, you are not Jesus Christ". The man then urged the two priests to go back with him to the bar to prove to them that he was Jesus Christ. As he entered the bar, the bartender was at the door and said, "Jesus Christ, you again?", at which the drunk turned to the priests and said "I told you so"!

You have been a great audience. Thank you very much for your kind attention.


  1. My vocabulary is inadequate to describe your speech other than to use the hackneyed cliche " simply brilliant". It is packed with memories, nostalgia, gratitude, philosophy and humour to instil loyalty in any Benedictine reading this. For us Colombo graduates of 1962 we can be proud that we too walked those long corridors of the GHC with this great man.
    Personally I have the greatest respect and regard for Cyril for his modesty humility and integrity despite his many achievements in medicine and sports. I have such happy memories meeting Cyril at the Cinnamon Grand in 2012 when he was in its plush lobby with Lareef Idroos. The photo of that meeting he sent me adorns my memory which I will carry with me to the next world. If I may quote the Parable of the Talents from St Matthew's Gospel Jesus Christ will say to him "Well done my good and faithful servant"

  2. That was inspirational and beautiful. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Cyril is his warm and genuine smile and demeanour which says so much. I would describe him as a "really nice guy". ND has commented on the content and all I can say is that in the case of Cyril, these are not just words; he has turned them into action. The only thing I would like to add is that persistent pressure to achieve success must be matched by the realisation of the abilities of the person to whom this pressure is applied. Not everyone can become a Neurosurgeon or a Concert Pianist or a 100 metre word record holder. I have seen this sort of pressure applied , sometimes with tragic consequences. It is up to parents and teachers to guide people wisely with realistic goals.It is also up to them to understand that a happy successful life is not the unique prerogative of high profile occupations and that every human being, in whatever occupation he/she pursues, is an important and valued member of Society. I therefore particularly like his exhortation, and I quote- "defined success as Peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction of knowing that you made the effort to become the best you are capable of.” This is all one can ask of you. Do the very best that you are capable of. "Do you best, do not leave room for regrets and never lose the will to achieve your goal".

    My apologies for talking at length on this but I do feel strongly that we must never make students feel a failure by expecting them to achieve unrealistic goals which are sometimes forced upon them by ambitious parents.

  3. I reproduce the email I sent to Cyril on reading his speech.
    'Hi Cyril,I really think this is brilliant; hope it was published in full in the school
    Like Sir WSC ,You have strung together simple words cleverly to convey an inspiring message.Tha balance of advice,exhortations,humour and anecdotes was just right.Even if a few boys emulate your achievements in academia and sports your objective would have been fulfilled.
    SBC can justly be proud to have an alamnus like you."
    I totally agree with ND's and Mahen's comments about Cyril's attributes.I had promised Mahen that I would write an article of what I remember of Cyril when the virtual interview was published.
    I will get down to it soon.Promises!!Promises!!

  4. That was really great Chief Guest speech and bring back memories of my school days @ your sister school.
    We were in our 1st.MB Course & remember I was the 'meat' (more fat than meat & 'substantially' delicious)sandwiched between You, The Great & Luckey (our Blog Controller).
    Well done Matey. Wish you more success.
    God be with you.

  5. Cyril, I am sure you inspired many young men (and others in the audience) with these words, anecdotes and jokes. I am certain that listening to you give the speech was far better than simply reading it here, but nevertheless there is much material to digest here. Our generation was lucky in that our education encompassed character building in addition to the academic training that we received. I am very impressed that you never gave up and got your black belt in Tae Kwan Do at age 68! Congratulations! Thank you for sharing your speech with us. No doubt St. Benedict's is very proud of you.

  6. Inspiring speech. St. Benedicts should be proud of you Cyril- a role model to emulate,

  7. A great speech which has touched on very important issues in life for these young students- the guardians of the future.
    I specifically liked the advise on taking responsibility, and the exhortations for making SL a peaceful and happy place for all its people.
    Enjoyed the humor too !