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Derek Samarasingha made an outstanding contribution to our country as a pioneer Sri Lankan tea planter, shareholding director of John Keells Ltd., a leading estate management company and later as the CEO/Managing Director of two privatised plantation companies. Those Sri Lankans who worked with him gained from him invaluable knowledge and experience. I am not a planter but as an engineer connected with the plantation industry, I first got to know Derek in 1963. I would like to relate my little story to give a reflection of Derek’s strong personality and his sense of justice.
In 1963, as a young bachelor engineer, I was transferred to Brown & Company Ltd.’s Badulla branch from the head office in Colombo. My predecessor, Ivan Girling, branch manager and mechanical engineer from Britain, was leaving after a long spell and I had to take over from him as the mechanical engineer. At the time almost all the senior tea planters attached to the estate management agency companies in the Badulla District were British nationals and several of them were generally reputed to be the most anti-native types in Sri Lanka. There were only two senior local planters in the area — Derek Samarasingha, Manager of Keenakelle Estate and Alec Halangoda, Manager of Oodoowera Estate.
Before I arrived in Badulla, the Badulla District tea planters had organised a farewell party for Mr.and Mrs.Girling at the Uva Club. Some of the British planters together with Mr.and Mrs.Girling and Derek had been enjoying their drinks and chatting at the Club’s bar counter. One of them asked Girling who was to succeed him at Browns. He had said that a “Mervyn Wijesinghe”, a Ruston & Hornsby trained engineer would arrive shortly.
One of the British planters is said to have remarked” Oh! A local! Browns will never be the same again”. This remark had stirred Derek’s feelings for our country and he had banged the bar counter with his fist and questioned: “Why do you say that?” Unfortunately, in the process a glass filled with liquor on the counter was also shaken, resulting in the liquor rising like a fountain and ending on Mrs.Girling. The rest of the British Planters in the Club had gathered round resulting in a heated argument. Derek had been outnumbered by the foreign planters but senior lawyer Jack Kothelawela who was the president of the Uva Club at the time helped settle the matter amicably. (This story was related to me by a Sri Lankan who happened to be in the club on that day).
Immediately thereafter, I assumed duties as the mechanical engineer at Browns’ Badulla branch. After about two weeks, I received a telephone call from Keenekelle Estate that the factory’s Ruston & Hornsby prime mover diesel engine had broken down and requesting the service of a mechanic to repair it urgently. I personally went to the estate with a mechanic and rectified a minor fuel injection problem within about half an hour and returned to my office. This was the first time I met Derek.
About a week later I received a letter from head office Chief Engineer Peter Birmingham, congratulating me for the good work I was doing in Badulla and encouraging me to keep it up. I was taken by surprise at the contents of this letter as I felt that I had done nothing to justify any outstanding good work. I then found out that Derek had written a letter to the chief engineer praising me and saying something to the effect that “Your new Engineer in Badulla is doing an excellent job and we are now getting some good service from Browns”. It then occurred to me that Derek was trying to boost the local engineers in those anti-native planter days. This letter no doubt helped me in my subsequent career at Browns and I am eternally grateful and will never forget Derek.
On a subsequent date, Derek and Vivina together with Alec Halangoda, Manager Oodoowera Estate invited me to dinner at Oodoowera Bungalow. Many years later, from 1992 to 2002, I worked as Director Engineering with Derek Samarasinha as my boss and CEO/Managing Director of Pussellawa Plantations Ltd. and Maturata Plantations Ltd. I continued to have the highest regard for him.
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