- Cedric James Oorloff

A tribute to a great educationist of the 20th Century


Cedric James Oorloff

By Dr. Nihal D Amerasekera

Cedric James Oorloff was an old Royalist who became the Principal of two great schools, Wesley College Colombo (1950-57) and Trinity College Kandy (1957-68) , at a very difficult time in the history of our country.

He was a Classics scholar and belonged to the elite brigade of Civil Servants of the British Raj. His final assignment in the CCS was Controller of Immigration and Emigration. After Independence he decided to move into a hitherto un-charted field of education and became Wesley College’s first Ceylonese Principal. It must have seemed an audacious move at the time. He arrived at Wesley with his good looks, dapper cream coloured suits, distinguished hair parted on the side and charming manners. With his immaculate English and British Upper Class aristocratic diction Cedric Oorloff could have easily been mistaken for an Englishman. He was noted for his meticulous timekeeping and attention to matters of style, dress and habits. He brought with him the British stiff upper lip, aloofness and strict discipline which attracted many critics. He set the highest standards for himself and others. With his unswerving sense of fair play, sound judgment, sense of humour and understated turn of phrase, he inspired many devoted admirers. He was at the height of his powers at a time when Education was a weighty political and social issue in post-Colonial Ceylon.

Nobody who met Cedric Oorloff could easily forget him. Tall and fair skinned he cut a striking figure on the teaching arena in Ceylon. His intellect was as imposing as his stature. He could be sweepingly dismissive of views of which he disapproved. CJ Oorloff spoke his mind so liberally and without fear of controversy. But the quality of his thinking, like the clarity of his prose, was outstanding.

There was always a wide gulf between the boys and the Principal. Corporal punishment was then in vogue and his tantrums were avoided like the plague. Being an intellectual he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Along with his foresight went a zero-tolerance of mediocrity. Despite this we cannot falter his commitment to Wesley and to education. It must be said the discipline in the school was then at its best. While his intellect and apparently sardonic style could make him seem intimidating, CJ Oorloff was a tough but compassionate educationist of the old tradition.

The new political environment, and new laws diluted the power of the Independent Schools run by the Church. Political ructions dominated his whole career and much of his professional life. On looking back his shrewd political awareness was a Godsend to Wesley during those turbulent times of the 1950’s when policies on education were made on the hoof by politicians pandering to the rising tide of ultra-nationalism. His job required tact, discretion, tough-mindedness and a healthy dose of common sense — qualities that this former Civil Servant had in abundance.

With his arrival we saw the dawn of a new era at Wesley. The institution was transformed into an organisation committed to delivering a high quality education. We continued to receive State Grants while maintaining our independence. He found little to admire about politics and politicians. His approach to them was sceptical, even cynical but diplomatic for the greater good of the school. His long association with successive Governments as a Civil Servant helped him and the school enormously.

CJO showed a keen interest in his staff. He drew deeply on the wide array of talents of the teachers for improvements in teaching, maintaining discipline and high standards of extra-curricular activities. His instructions were lucid and penetrating exploiting the rich resources of students and staff. There was no place in his school for small-minded troublemakers and zealots. He was inspired not by new-fangled and fancy theories but by a wish to do whatever he could to deliver a high-quality education and he was meticulous in its pursuit. He achieved his objectives in grand style.

We couldn’t have had a better forthright Principal during this crucial time. Academic standards improved in leaps and bounds. During his tenure we had some of the best years in the field of sports. I saw his lighter side (literally and metaphorically) when I was a ball boy at the staff tennis court. CJO laughed the loudest during the games, on and off the court. He grunted like a modern day tennis players as he served, just as he did when he swung the cane!! With his trademark look of wry bemusement and a stern schoolmasterly gaze he questioned those about to receive his punishment. But behind the somewhat forbidding exterior was a wicked sense of humour, a high intelligence and a deep loyalty to the profession. He was always courteous and polite whatever the situation and we saw his kindness only when outside the school premises. CJ Oorloff was a thoughtful man who often held strong opinions. He was forever optimistic of a better future for Wesley and Trinity College.

I recall with much nostalgia his entry onto the stage which he did with incomparable grace, every morning at assembly. He wore his black robe and cap. "Good Morning boys" and we chanted "Good Morning Sir" And he said "Be seated". On Fridays he read out the "Detention for tomorrow" This well rehearsed drill we repeated day after day until he left school. When I see his photo, his voice still echoes in my head. His awesome performance on stage must haunt every student who saw his regal presence.

Fiercely impulsive he ran a tight ship and steered the school through difficult storms into calmer waters. CJO was an astute educationist and saw troubled times ahead for the Government assisted schools. He preferred to move to a school independent of the inconsequential and whimsical manouvres of politicians . He left in 1957 after seven years at Wesley to become the Principal of Trinity College. Our loss was their gain. There he was much loved and respected despite his firm authoritarian style. I am reliably informed by an old Wesleyite who taught at Trinity College briefly, Ranjit Alwis, that CJO had mellowed a great deal. Trinity is a school with long traditions and processes and Mr Oorloff replaced a much loved Principal in Mr Norman S Walter. This was a difficult act to follow. There were times when Mr Oorloff’s sure touch seemed to desert him. Perhaps he lacked the total and unhindered support as at Wesley College. Nevertheless his achievements at Trinity speaks volumes of his successful tenure as Principal.

He was the complete professional the likes of whom we may never see again. Whoever is Principal of Wesley College there are moments in my mind’s eye when as long as I live I shall only see CJ Oorloff on that special chair on stage. He will remain a legend at the Karlsruhe village in the years to come.

CJ Oorloff’s illustrious career as an educationist ended with his retirement from Trinity College in 1968. He was celebrated enough to earn a place alongside the great Principals in the Educationists hall of fame. His distillation of wisdom and good practice as Principal will remain a benchmark for others to follow.

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