He belonged to that special breed of Irishmen who dedicated their lives to teaching but never ever taught an Irish student. It’s an irony which he joked about. That man, after a brave three-year battle with bone cancer, passed away in his native land last Wednesday night (Malaysian time).
Despite a tight schedule in the midst of an upcoming state election, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem was one of the first to sign the condolence book.
Top civil servant Zuraimi Sabki, among those who paid tribute, echoed the emotions and wonder of many with a question, “Why do I feel sad and wish to shed a tear for a foreigner?”
For those who attended schools led and managed by the La Salle Brothers during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Bro Columba’s death marked the end of an era. He was the last of the big three to leave us.
Like his counterpart Bro Albinus O’ Flaherty in Sibu (the last La Salle principal of Sacred Heart School, 1972-86) who died two and a half years ago and Bro Charles O’ Leary in Kota Kinabalu (the last La Salle principal of La Salle School, 1969-85) who died only two months ago, he was the last La Salle principal of the school in Kuching (1970-87) that thousands including the last three chief ministers of Sarawak called their alma mater.
I don’t know Who, or What, put the question, I don’t know when it was put, I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes, to Someone or Something, and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal. (1)Columba James Gleeson was born to an Irish farming family on March 18, 1935. At the tender age of 13, he left his family and home to join the De La Salle Juniorate. He took his first vow as a La Salle Brother four years later, completed his secondary schooling in 1953 and qualified as a trained teacher by 1955.
Only in his early twenties, the engaging teacher occupied himself with his two passions alongside his religious life – teaching and sports. Many of his latter students did not know that Bro Columba was a first-class football player. Reportedly “the best full-back in Sibu” at the time, he even represented the Third Division (now Sibu Division) in the state inter-division tournament. He was in the winning team which lifted the Sarawak Cup in 1961.
Bro Columba taught in Sacred Heart for five years before he was recalled for further studies. Upon his graduation with a B.A (Honours) degree from the National University of Ireland, he returned to an independent Sarawak within Malaysia. He set off on an unbroken 22-year stint at St Joseph’s in Kuching from Dec 1965.
He was among the few qualified to teach at the pre-university level. Still only in his early 30s he also starred as a prolific goal scorer in the local premier hockey league. His astonishing range of talents did not escape the eyes of his superiors. Two months before his 35th birthday he became the principal, a post he held for the next 18 years until his retirement in Jan 1988.
He inherited a very good school and strived to make it greater. His only regret, he confessed many times, was that administrative duties reduced his time for classroom teaching and personal interaction with students. He also took the helm during a trying transitional period when federal government control expanded at the expense of school autonomy. In one notable instance, he and all his non-Malaysian staff received an urgent notice that their services would be terminated by the end of the month.
Nevertheless, he with fellow Brothers Adrian, Mark and Hyacinth, and old boys led by Polycarp Sim, rallied the school staff in envisioning and carrying out big plans. Physical transformation supported by fund-raising was first on the agenda.
By 1973, within a space of three short years, the administration block including the staff room was extensively renovated, a new separate four-storey block erected to house a canteen, science labs, two libraries, classrooms and an AVA auditorium among other special function rooms. That was not all.
The entire school compound was dug up to lay a modern drainage system and new grass for two football fields, one hockey-cum-rugby field, a 130m bitumen running track and pits for all throwing and jumping events in athletics. Re-surfaced courts also emerged for basketball, tennis and sepak takraw.
The 1970s and 1980s represented an unparalleled era of achievement in the school’s pursuit of academic and co-curricular excellence.
Year in, year out, Josephians scored sterling results in all their endeavours – public examinations and inter-school competitions in sports and other co-curricular activities. They thrived in art, music, debating, drama, photography, scouting, community service and other intellectual, cultural and literary pursuits in a conducive environment equipped with good facilities and good teachers.
The brightest won scholarships and confidently pursued further studies and even careers in top universities around the world.
The La Sallian brand of all-rounded education was anchored on discipline. While corporal punishment was rife, Bro Columba never grew tired reminding his charges that the best discipline was self-discipline. He was strict and often carried and used his cane. But many old boys could also relate personal encounters with their compassionate principal. One alumnus Professor Morni Hj Kambrie singled out Bro Columba and his methods in his keynote address to freshmen entering his college in 2013. He was sent to the principal over a complaint that he was selling nasi lemak in the school canteen. He pleaded that he needed the extra money for school expenses. Instead of receiving the expected punishment, he was advised to tell his customers to eat the nasi lemak in the classroom but to ensure that they do not litter the canteen and school compound.
It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action. (2)Bro Columba was a brilliant leader and master motivator who led by example and inspiration. Students could spot him walking around the school at all hours of the day. He picked up litter from the ground and disposed it at the next dustbin when nothing else caught his eye. His nightly patrols ensured students stayed in the library and deterred thieves from stealing their bicycles. The weekly school assembly was as much about inculcating discipline and good values as celebrating success and raising school morale. The school athletics team was inter-school champions every year since the inaugural meet in 1962. Each year, the team captain would present the overall championship shield to the principal during assembly. One year, Bro Columba’s speech as he received it went something like this: “Every year, the name of the school that wins is inscribed on this shield. As I look at the shield now, I see 1966 – St Joseph’s, 1969 – St Joseph’s again, 1971 – also St Joseph’s (Then he paused to eyeball the whole trophy and continued)… In fact, there is only one name on this shield!” Everyone cheered, roared and their school spirit soared through the roof.
Asked for a comment when told on the phone that his ex-principal had died, State Secretary Tan Sri Morshidi Ghani quipped: “He was race and religion blind.” Like all principals of the La Sallian tradition, Bro Columba nurtured a school in which children of all races and faiths – Dayaks, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others – sat and stood side by side, studied, played, got punished and celebrated victories together. Many old boys could easily count classmates or school teammates from a different race or creed among their life-long friends.
Bro Columba left Sarawak for permanent retirement in Ireland in 1997. Many old boys travelled there to visit him, Bro Adrian and Bro Mark at Miguel House retirement home. In a particularly candid interview in 2012, he recalled leaving his family for the second time in Dec 1965 to return to Sarawak after three years pursuing a university degree: “These (3) years were precious to me because, for the first time in my life after the age of 13, I was able to be part of my family, that was the time when I really got to know my father and mother for who they really were.” The eldest son vividly described how it was more difficult to leave the second time as his parents were ageing. He said of his father who was already ill: “The way he said farewell and the way he hugged me told me I would not be seeing him again.” His father died three months later.
Since last Wednesday night, old Josephians have reminisced and shared memories of their time in school and personal recollections of their beloved ex-principal. Bro Columba’s passing is mourned by his four brothers Gerry, Bobby, John and Tim, two sisters Anna and Kathleen, many nephews and nieces in Ireland. Yet for the 27 batches of his students in Sarawak, the loss is also deeply felt. To many of them too, Bro Columba’s demise hit them like a death in the family.
The most satisfying thing in life is to have been able to give a large part of one’s self to others. (3)