Saturday, November 19, 2011
A rendezvous with Professor E Frederick Bartholomeusz (Batho) - Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
(First published at: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=38921)
Professor Munidasa P Ranaweera’s recent glowing tribute to the late Professor Everard Frederick Bartholomeusz (1920-2011) titled "Engineering Mathematics Professor, a Great Mentor and Lifelong Inspiration" prompted me to add this personal note on "Batho" as we all affectionately called him during our university days.
The distinguished Founder Professor of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Peradeniya who passed away on Oct 22 in Phoenix, Arizona in US was a livewire of engineering education and was one of the brilliant lecturers instrumental in maintaining the very high standards that the Faculty of Engineering was renowned for during the heyday or the golden age of Peradeniya. Prof Batho was an essential part of the Peradeniya university landscape and the campus teaching culture. His concern for student welfare was legendary.
Mine is not a studied tribute or a eulogy to Prof EF Bartholomeusz. These are thoughts that came to my mind the moment I heard that the great man, the great teacher is no more. This short note is based on just one fortuitous meeting that I was destined to have with "Batho" as a student. This meeting is like a snapshot of the quintessential "Batho" and what he stood for as a teacher and a mentor.
To me "Batho" was the epitome of the ideal professor- eloquent, stylish, well mannered and charismatic for his age even though he had passed 50 during our time. With his well groomed beard and moustache he was almost like a character from a book. The way he paraded on the podium during lectures explaining a knotty problem or a complex principle with passion and simplicity and then how he rushed towards the blackboard to write his notes neatly was a sight to behold. In addition to be renowned for clarity, his lectures were also like an enthralling lesson in English language.
Ironically this rendezvous with Prof Batho would have never taken place, had I continued my studies in the Faculty with the same vigour and interest I had when I did my ALs. My interest in Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy and Evolution were supplanted by my passion for literature and the works of the Great Russian masters had taken the centre stage. I spent a fair bit of time devouring the great masterpieces and even tried my hand in writing fiction in Sinhala, luckily without success. This passion for literature continued through my university tutelage, very strongly in the first three years. Engineering bored me. Also shaped by certain personal circumstances, I was dreamy, wistful and pensive. My heart and mind were elsewhere. I considered myself homesick and waited for the slightest diversion however empty or trivial- to take me away from the books.
In the second year (1973), though I generally attended lectures, my interest had waned considerably. However there were a few exceptions. I did not mind attending Prof Mahalingam’s lectures because he made Theory of Machines and engineering look so easy. I was drawn to "Batho’s lectures for a different reason. Usually seated in a back row, I admired the way he expressed himself, his idiosyncratic gestures and his command of English. At times it was like watching an episode of a drama. His lectures on Classical Mechanics which included the Conical Pendulum in our third year (1974) were something that I vividly remembered for a long time.
During the 2nd Year which led to the Part 1 examination, I did the absolute minimum with regard to the coursework and in preparing for the examination. I was naïve and eager to believe what the seniors used to say: "Part 1 Mathematics is something that you do not have to worry. "Batho" is very lenient and reasonable- if you do well in other subjects and have touched a bit of mathematics, "Batho" will "push" you in the exam". A very convenient comforting thought in deed. I built my strategy to pass Mathematics on this plan and was sure that it was going to work.
Being convinced that leniency of Prof Batho is the way to get through Mathematics I did well in other four or five subjects. When the exam time came despite my poor record on submitting home tutorials or attending the class tutorials, I had the audacity to study (really the "last minute cram") just one section (Matrices and Determinants) out of six or seven possible sections from which you would be tested. I went for the examination, convinced that whatever I would score in this single section which I did not master anyway, will be good enough to secure a pass. I did not then realize that I was stretching my luck a bit too much.
I am sure I did quite well in other subjects. Not surprisingly when the results were released I was "referred" in Mathematics. Prof Batho’s leniency theory had not worked. I had no choice but to make up my mind to do the repeat examination which was due in mid year during the vacation. I continued with the normal business of going for third year lectures when word spread that Prof Batho had wanted to personally meet all the students who had either failed the Part 1 examination or got referred in Mathematics.
No one dared to disobey Prof Batho. One day during the mid morning tea break, I plucked up courage and strolled up to the entrance of the staff room located in the upper floor of the Faculty main office to meet Prof Batho. I cannot recall who met me at the door. Whoever it was undertook to go in to the staff room to announce my arrival. After a few agonising minutes, Prof Batho appeared at the door walking quickly as he always did. I think he had his usual cigarette in his hand. While approaching me he was looking at me intently with a serious but a concerned expression. For a moment I even thought he looked worried. Without saying anything, he guided me to the corridor by taking a few steps so that we would not obstruct the entrance. Possibly he also wanted to ensure that the conversation took place in "private". Then he bent his head towards me indicating that he was ready to listen to me. More than 37 years gone, with no diaries kept, I can not requote our conversation verbatim, but what he said left such an indelible impression in me I can vouch that our conversation did not deviate much from what is quoted below:
"Sir you had wanted to meet those who got referred in Part1 Mathematics and I am one of them" My tone must have been submissive.
Still with that "worried" or concerned look, he started talking in a measured tone: "I recall I passed (conceded a pass) every one who had scored about 30 marks in Maths, if they had passed other subjects. There was another category of students- those who scored less than 30 marks but had attended the lectures and had done the home tutorials. I passed all of them too". He paused for a while and then said more emphatically: "And there was another- a third category- those who scored only around 20 marks but had submitted their class tutorials, home tutorials and attended the lectures. I passed all of them too". With that he touched his forehead with his palm to express regret and exclaimed in a rather dramatic fashion gesticulating with both hands as if he was in the lecture room: "There must have been something terribly wrong with my teaching".
He looked genuinely upset when he uttered the last sentence and it cut deep into me. Whether it was my moment of vanity or stupidity or naivety, I managed to offer these words more with the intent of "comforting" him: "Sir to be honest, I went for the exam without studying Maths at all. I am sure I can get through in the repeat examination. I promise I will study seriously for the repeat examination"
Surely he must have been relieved. I vividly remember his parting comment: "Once you sit the repeat examination can you come and tell me how you fared?"
I made it a point to study all the topics, and sat the repeat examination in the vacation and did quite well.
After answering the repeat examination, keeping my rendezvous with Batho I made a re-appearance in the staff room and happily announced "Sir I did my repeat examination and I think I did well to score enough marks; to get 60 or 70 marks"
This meeting showed the concern and the genuine respect Prof Batho had for his students- there was not a word of blame or even a hint of dissent in his tone. On a similar situation, at best most lecturers would indulge in saying the obvious about the wisdom of studying. Some would even scorn or belittle you with sarcasm. Widely regarded as the best lecturer then, his humility and self awareness was such that he was even prepared to concede that his lecturing may not have been good enough as I could not score even 20 marks! What a way to comfort a student! Thinking now he was like the forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I am sure it is this very humane way of dealing with the students and his father like affectionate approach that made "Batho" a cut above the rest and made him such an endearing person to the student. A pity that this great man had to soon leave the Faculty in search of greener pastures in Zambia denying us the opportunity of further association.
Prof Batho belonged to a bygone generation of academics and teachers now almost extinct. Others of the same ilk were Prof EOE Pereira, Prof A Thurairajah and Prof S Mahalingam - all different and contrasting personalities but great teachers in their own right. EOE had just retired before our time and we were not fortunate to study under him, but we have heard of his deeds.
Prof Batho interacted with the students seamlessly with tact, finesse and grace. His social upbringing naturally gave a western outlook to his conduct, mannerism and speech. These traits though appealing also had the potential to alienate him from those who were not nurtured in these values. The majority of the students were not from that background. "Batho" had broken this barrier effortlessly even though he probably never spoke a single word of Sinhala or Tamil. The warm words of affection and regard added by former students on the Online Memorial to him bear testimony to this.
While walking briskly in the corridor whether he was trying to make eye contact with you with that sincere or somewhat worried look in his face, or whether when he was gesticulating impressively and passionately on the podium as part of a lecture, there was no question that every student regardless of his social standing was simply drawn to "Batho". He was by far the most loved lecturer during our time.
"To gild refined gold,
To paint the lily
To throw a perfume on the violet
To add another hue unto the rainbow
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess"
Trying to describe Batho with adjectives or superlatives is a similar excess.
We were indeed fortunate that we were his students.
By Maximus Jayantha Anandappa (1972-75 Batch)