It seems to be the natural thing that we remember the lives of people on their deaths or memorials. Ten years have gone by since the death of Mr Barnabas Alexander. But the life he left behind still continues.
When Barnabas Alexander of Trinity College, Kandy died on December 15 2009 he was in his home, listening to his electronic Bible. He was steadfast in his Christian beliefs and maintained his daily routine in an orderly manner.
Mr Alexander was blind. He had lost his sight in his childhood due to an accident. In spite of this at no time did he allow himself to be limited by this handicap. Being an accomplished musician he played the piano, organ, cello, and guitar by memorizing the music notes written in Braille. He learnt music from Mrs Ellen Jorden and Mrs C. Ekanayaka while studying at the Ratmalana School for the Blind.
He joined Trinity College in 1961 as a telephone operator in response to an invitation by Mr C. J. Oorlorf, then Principal of Trinity College and also Manager of the School for the Blind.
There were three things that struck those who met Mr Alexander: that he single-handedly manned the school telephone switchboard, that he was a markedly musical person, and that he was blind. He would greet telephone callers with the words “Good morning, Trinity College” or “Good afternoon, Trinity College”. He would recognize voices years later, and startled callers by addressing them by their name.
Trinity students typically encountered him through his great gift for music. Those of us who began in the junior school remember seeing him being escorted to the lower school hall for the weekly singing class. Upper school students heard him at the piano at morning assembly, when he played charming background music until it was time for the assembly to commence. Countless students at Trinity learned to sing the school song, the School Hymn and the National Anthem, thanks to Mr Alexander.
Those in the school choir had the privilege of being accompanied by Mr Alexander. His dedicated playing on the chapel organ was an integral part of the regular Sunday services and of weekday morning worship. For several generations of students and those who prayed at the Trinity Chapel, the invitation to worship came with two distinct sounds: the pealing of the chapel bell and the strains of the chapel organ, with Mr Alexander at the keyboard.
From his first days at Trinity, Mr Alexander lived in quarters on the school premises. Students will recall holding him by his hand and escorting him from the school office and up several steps to his room near the Ryde Boarding House. In his room, he would accommodate requests from students to play the piano or to listen to the commentary for international Test cricket matches on his radio. We discovered that his disability did not matter in the least in our dealings with him; the fact that he was blind taught us to think positively about the blind.
Around 1980, Mr Alexander married Sujatha, who had partial vision, and she moved into his new living quarters, just above Ryde House. They were a devoted couple, and she was a dedicated spouse and a gracious hostess. Her demise in November 2008 was a devastating blow to her husband. Although he recovered his stride, it was partial. Those close to him sensed he was pining for her, right to the end.
For those who had a closer association with Mr Alexander, it was a lesson in life. He was a great conversation maker. It was amazing how he kept in touch with the world around him mostly by listening to his radio. BBC World Service was one of his favourites. He had a well tuned sense for what was right and wrong and always showed by example the meaning of duty, responsibility and commitment.
He believed in certain standards of conduct, and bristled with indignation when formalities were breached or courtesies not followed. Above all, going beyond his genial demeanour, the cheerfulness that he extended in his life, even after having lost his sight, filled many with wonder.
Even in his final year of life, the Chapel and the Organ was inseparable from Mr Alexander. Such was his attachment to the Chapel and music. During the final months of his life he once came on a Saturday evening to play for the Sunday morning service and returned to the hospital where he was admitted.
Choristers used to bring him in a wheelchair, carry him to the organ stool where he played till his fingers could move no more. The spirit and desire to play the organ even with his continuously failing physical being was inextinguishable.
Those who knew Mr Alexander will miss him. He was a landmark individual in the school. We have only to think about the music he played to bring back wonderful memories of the school chapel; its murals, pillars and carvings; its picturesque surroundings; the distant Hantane by day, and the glow of candles at dusk at the Carol Service. When he finally bade goodbye to life, he left whatever the worldly wealth he had in a scholarship fund for the students of Trinity.
Mr Alexander was lovingly remembered at this year’s Carol Service. The service booklet carried a small article and the Choir paid its tribute by singing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, one of the pieces he used to play often.
We all make a LIVING by what we get. But we make a LIFE by what we give. It could well be, that life may have not given a good deal to Barnabas Alexander; but most definitely Barnabas Alexander gave back to life a lot more than he got from it.
Ananda Abayaratna and Lasantha Tennekoon