Remembering Renowned Educationist RIT Alles
Sunday, 28 November 2021, marks eight years since Sri Lanka lost one of its proudest citizens and a renowned educator, who shaped a number of generations throughout his lifetime.
As the founder of not one but two leading schools in the country, which continue to carry forward his legacy of excellence, discipline and kindness, the service rendered to this country and its younger generations by R.I.T Alles is second to none.
The fact that scores of his former students commemorate him on this day, no matter which coner of the Earth they are currently domiciled, is a testament to the lasting impression he had made in their lives.
The sons and daughters of the D.S. Senanayake College and the Gateway College, even those who joined the schools after his passing away, hold him in the highest esteem and strive to follow in his footsteps to become excemplary citizens of this country.
Ralph Ignatius Thomas Alles was born on 3 October 1932, in Galle, the capital city of the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. The colonial rule in Ceylon was in its 136th year then. The first election of Ceylon’s State Assembly, the Parliament then, was held in 1931. Senior Mr. Alles belonged to a family of rural elite in Kaluwella, Galle. With hopes to provide a good English medium education to hos children, Mr. Alles admitted his son to St. Aloysius College, Galle. His peers in the Aloysius College were veterans in many fields from writing to business.
R.I.T. Alles received his senior education at St. Anthony’s College, Kandy. St. Anthony’s College moulded him as a disciplined young man who was brilliant in the English language.
R.I.T. Alles’ story of success, as a renowned educationist, has a modest start. Alles passed junior exams at St. Anthony’s and passed the Senior School Certificate at the Bennet Commerce College in Colombo. He joined the teaching staff of the same school. After that, he qualified to enter the Teacher Training College in Maharagama in 1956.
After two years of education at the Teachers’ Training College, he joined the teaching staff of Royal College in 1957. Soon, he became a popular teacher there. On 31 August 1959, he married a teacher named Rohini whom he met at the Teacher Training College. She was a teacher at Piyathissa Vidyalaya, Galle at that time.
Alles family settled in Uluvitike, Galle. Mr. Alles attended school every day. He taught English and mathematics while serving as the master-in-charge of the cadet platoon. His commitment was recognised and rewarded. He was later selected to establish the D.S. Senanayake College, Colombo and served as its founding Principal.
This is how he remembered the day he got that promotion: “I was 35 years old then. I was teaching a lesson to an Ordinary Level class. The school peon brought a note from the principal, Mr. Bogoda Premarathna. Saluting me as RITA, he informed me that Secretary of the Ministry of Education, M.J. Perera, and educational director Hettiarachchi had wanted to meet me. I ran to the office suspecting what would happen. I criticised the education white paper at the convention of the Secondary Teachers’ Union. I was afraid they had wanted to question me on that. I entered the office muttering, “I am finished.” Mr. Premarathna heard me but did not say anything but smiled.
“The two officials asked me to meet the Minister of Education I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla. He was a strict gentleman, and I went there in fear. I was wearing a coat without a tie. However, the gatekeeper did not notice my anxiety. He abruptly rejected entry for me.
“Hon. Minister is waiting for me. I am R.I.T. Alles, I said. After a few minutes, I was called in. Mr. Perera and Mr. Hettiarachchi, who came to Royal College to meet me, were also there. I was perplexed, but the Minister relieved me quickly.
“Mr. Alles, we want to start a new school to reduce the competition to enter Royal College. We have chosen you to start the school. Therefore, you will have to start the school in the land we have chosen on Gregory’s Road. We shall construct a new building there,” the Minister stated.
“I was amazed. I said that I was a simple teacher who had no knowledge of administration. But the Minister ignored my protest and told me that they had already decided on the matter.
“1967 was a life-changing year for me. The building construction started. I was sometimes the contractor or the supervisor and once in a while, the watcher too. There were times I acted as the principal too, but there wasn’t a single teacher on my staff. When I first went to see the land, I was shocked. It was about a quarter acre. A dirty gutter carrying waste from the General Hospital went across the land, which was a thicket called Koombikele. The name meant ‘jungle of ants’. The slums nearby were called Uniport. As I perceived, the land was not suitable for a school.
“However, I accepted the challenge. Since there was no staff to help me, I sought the support of the cadet platoon and the mathematics section of Royal College. In return, I taught them in the evening to prepare them for the Ordinary Level examination. The students cut 23 huge trees and prepared the land for the building construction.
“According to construction method proposed by engineer Nandasena Kulasinghe, a 100X20-foot building and a 80X20 building were initially constructed at the cost of Rs 54,000. The challenge was achieved and D.S. Senanayaka College was started on 10 February 1967, with 167 students and five teachers.
“I must thank my wife, who gave me full freedom to commit to my duty, relieving me from family burdens.”
‘Country before self’
In 1968, R.I.T. Alles was selected for a scholarship at Cambridge University to learn new educational methodology. The staff was 13 at that time. ‘Country before self’ was the school motto.
There are many students who remember the brilliance of their teacher R.I.T. Alles. President’s adviser and former Secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga, learnt from him when he studied at Royal College.
“Mr. Alles was very kind, although he was a highly disciplined personality. He did not let any student fall behind. He was our class teacher cum English teacher. He had an inborn talent in teaching English. I was thorough in grammar, thanks to my father, who taught me. I could read and write, but Mr. Alles gave me the strength to use the language boldly. I must thank him for making me a person who is not afraid to speak before any audience. He taught us the longest word in the English language. It was floccinaucinihilipilification which meant nil or nothing,” Weeratunga said.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardane was another student of R.I.T. Alles. This is how he remembered his teacher. “He gave us a wealth of knowledge on discipline, virtues, country and nation. His teaching exceeded curricula and textbooks.
“I remember how I was encouraged by him to be promoted as a sergeant of the cadet platoon of Royal College. I still remember his commands as our officer at Diyathalawa and Hanwella training camps. He taught us to challenge the challenges,” Gunawardane said.
Stint at Zahira
Another significant milestone in Mr. Alles’ life is becoming the Principal of Zahira College, Maradana, one of the leading Muslim schools of Sri Lanka. He describes the experience in his autobiography.
“Ministry of Education issued a circular that the principal of a school must belong to the religion of the majority of students. To bypass this law, chairman of the school board of Zahira College changed my position as Director Education instead of Principal. Thus, I became the first Sinhala Buddhist Principal of Muslim Zahira College. I streamlined the school and changed the entire system. I called the students ‘son’. There was a practice of being late to school. To correct this, I closed the gate at 7:30 a.m. The parents were against this. I pointed out to them that every Muslim prayed at 6 a.m. and asked why the Muslim students could not come to school at 7.30 a.m.
“I understood that it was easy if all students go to the same mosque for midday prayers. I negotiated with the caretaker of the mosque in Maradana and got the left-wing of the mosque allocated to the students of Zahira College. When the white-capped Zahira boys went to the mosque, I monitored whether all of them would observe religion. My principle was that they must observe religion as same as I do. Parents liked this move.”
Mr. Alles held the position of principal of Zahira College from 1983 to 1986.
In 1986, he founded the network of Gateway Colleges. He remembers the experience as follows: “At D.S. Senanayaka College, I called students ‘son’ because there were only boys. I continued the principles of D.S. Senanayaka College with the sons and daughters of Gateway schools. The schools network grew independently, and we were happy and free.”
Meanwhile, D.S. Senanayake College was losing its former glory. Therefore, he was again invited to lead the school and retired from D.S. Senanayaka College on 31 March 1992. He was promoted as the State Secretary of Education and served the future generation of the nation promoting the principle – ‘all good things are for children”.