The Most Senior Sri Lankan Immigrant
Dr. Ray de Zylva, D.Sc is an erudite senior citizen who sparkles with a vivacious serenity. He is upright, quiet and considerate, something of a figure of a very learned man. He is the longest surviving Sri Lankan resident in New Zealand, having arrived here in January 1959. Eighty-six-year old Dr. de Zylva has served his motherland, Sri Lanka, for 42 years and his adopted country, New Zealand, for 44 years.
He left Sri Lanka in 1958 along with his wife Irma, daughter Alison and son Chris who were then 12 and 10 years old, respectively. Those were days when New Zealand citizenship was more expeditiously perfected, and citizenship papers were posted to one’s home address, recalls Dr. de Zylva.
Born in Kalutara, a town 23 miles from Colombo, in 1917, he completed his schooling at Trinity College in Kandy in the Central Province from 1927-34 where he obtained the London Matriculation Examination Certificate. After a year at the School of Tropical Agriculture in 1935, he entered the then Ceylon University College. He spent five years in the University from 1936-41, serving as Student Demonstrator in Zoology from 1937 and passing the B.Sc (Special) in Zoology with Botany in 1940. He continued with one year’s research work as a research assistant in zoology from 1940-41. A number of his typed specimen dissections have remained on display in the Zoology department, and his manual on The Toad (Bufo melanostictus) was used for several years by first year Zoology and Premedical students.
Dr. de Zylva had a very distinguished career in the Public Service in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). This writer met him as a youngster when Dr de Zylva was the District Commissioner for Colombo Scouts and the writer was Troop Leader of the 28th Colombo (Don Bosco) Scout Group. Dr de Zylva visited the Scout Group at their Hulftsdorp Hill headquarters often. As District Commissioner in Colombo he was looked up to as a model scout and a “parfit gentleman”. After his migration, this writer lost contact with him and it was only in the year 2002 that he was able to locate him in the North Island quite by chance.
He was awarded a doctorate (honoris causa) from the Open International University for Complementary Medicine at the World Congress on Alternative Medicine 2000, in appreciation of his paper on “The Cure of Arthritis by Diet Selection” (which drugs have never achieved), which he was invited to present at the Congress. The paper includes his personal experience of its validity. He has been a Fisheries Correspondent to Journals in London, Melbourne and New Zealand from 1970 to date.
Dr. de Zylva is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and a Chartered Biologist and a Member of the Institute of Biology, London. He is also a Member of the NZ Association of Scientists (in which he was on the Committee for ten years) and of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The Government of the day appointed him as a Superintendent of Prisons in 1941, in which capacity he served in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna until May 1945. He was decorated with a War Service Medal for ARP Warden duties as a Prison Superintendent. He assumed duties in Colombo as the Assistant Director of Fisheries in 1945, rising up in his career as Deputy Director and Director of Fisheries. In 1953 he received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, and in 1955 the King of Denmark awarded him the Galathea Medal 1950-52 for his contribution to the Galathea Indian Ocean Expedition.
During his tenure of office until 1958, the Department witnessed many progressive changes for the benefit of the common man. Following a study tour of fish farming in Singapore and Malaya , he introduced fish farming into Sri Lanka in 1948, which pioneered the very lucrative fish farming industry of today. He was responsible for initiating Mechanization of Fishing Vessels and training of fishermen in the use of Modern Fishing Gear and Techniques with the assistance of the Extended Technical Assistance Programme of the Fisheries Division of FAO and a Colombo Plan grant from Canada, from 1950-55. C/Plan and FAO/ETAP specialists from the UK, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, India and Australia, and skilled technologists of the Japanese Fisheries Agency contributed their expertise in training departmental staff and fishermen..
He reorganised the Fisheries Department in keeping with the Government’s developmental objectives and his own knowledge and experience.
He was Ceylon’s Delegate at the SEAC/FAO Food Conference in Singapore in 1946, the third meeting of the Indo Pacific Fisheries Council Executive Committee in Kandy and the Sixth Sessions of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council in Tokyo in 1955, and Co-delegate at the FAO Food Conference, Bandung, Indonesia .
Scouting and sports were among his extra-curricular activities. The period of his stewardship as District Scout Commissioner, Colombo produced the best scouts of that era remember. He served as District Commissioner from 1948-58. He holds both the Scout and Cub Wood Badge, the highest award for Scouter trainers. Before attending the 8th World Jamboree in Niagara, Canada in 1955, representing Ceylon Scout Movement, he attended a Wood Badge Refresher Course at Gilwell Park in Essex , the home of world scouting.
A keen Rugby player, he captained his University college team. He captained the University Hockey Team in 1940 and was a member of the University Tennis Team. As a member of the CR & FC for 22 years, and later a life-member, he was full back in the Ceylonese XV at the All India International Rugby Tournament held in Madras in 1938. He was full back in the Ceylon XV in Colombo against the Australians, and in the All India Tournament winners in Colombo in 1949. He was a Clifford Cup referee from 1950 to 1958, until he left Ceylon.
His achievements during his sojourn in Kiwiland speak volumes. His first appointment in New Zealand was as a Senior Biology Teacher in the Feilding Agricultural High School. He worked in Feilding for a period of ten years from 1959 to 1969 and coached school rugby, tennis and hockey, until he became Deputy Head at Manawatu College, Foxton for a year from 1969-70.
He then moved into the Fisheries Research and Development field, becoming the R&D Manager at JBL Fisheries in Auckland. This work lasted for two years only, until JBL Fisheries closed its doors. He was immediately appointed Head of Science at Hillary College, Otara, Auckland, where he served from 1972 to 1978.
He retired to Gisborne, on the East Coast to join his daughter and her husband and family there. Here he worked as Fisheries Consultant from 1978-96, Honorary Curator of Natural History at the Gisborne Museum , and a member of the Wastewater Committee of the Gisborne District Council. He was the Gisborne candidate for the New Zealand Party in the 1984 Parliamentary elections.
His final move was to Napier in 1997 and now lives in Taradale.
He has a large number of publications to his credit, which are too numerous to recount here. He contributes regular articles to Overseas Fisheries Journals.
Another branch of his social service activity was as a Rotarian. His roots go back to his membership in 1944 and 1945 of the Jaffna Rotary Club in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
After moving to New Zealand he was invited to resume his active membership in Rotary, first in the Northcote Rotary Club, Auckland from 1970-78. He transferred to the Gisborne Rotary Club in 1978, was elected President in 1981 and continued his membership of that club until 1996.
He served as member of Rotary International’s ANZOA Health, Hunger and Humanity (3H) Consultative Committee in 1981-82 and was instrumental in setting up The Rotary Foundation’s 3H Project 84/7, in which he worked with the Comilla Rotary Club, training village Fish Culturists and establishing over 300 Fish Farms in Comilla and neighbouring districts in Bangladesh during the 1983-88 period, as TRF Fisheries Adviser and Consultant.
He was made a Paul Harris Fellow in 1987.
He is now a Senior Active member of the Napier Rotary Club.
He did not give up his first love, Scouting, either. On arrival in New Zealand, he represented Ceylon at the Pan-Pacific Scout Jamboree held at Cornwall Park, Auckland in 1959. He attended other Scout Jamborees in New Zealand in the following years, and conducted the national Scout Camp Fire in Tauranga in honour of H. M. the Queen’s visit.
He was Training Commissioner, Feilding, from 1959-70, during which a large number of Scout and Cub leaders in the district qualified for their Wood Badge, and a member of the Dominion Training Team. He was also a Deputy Camp Chief. He is a member of the Taradale Branch of the international BP Guild of Scouts.
Dr. de Zylva and his wife are active members of their church. As a Lay Leader of the Anglican Church in Wellington, Auckland and Waiapu dioceses from 1959-85, he has led worship in many churches. He has served on vestry since 1959, and is still a Vestryman. She was the organist at St John’s Church in Gisborne for many years. They were active supporters of the Bible Society in Gisborne, and continue to support its work in Napier.
He is a keen bass singer. He got his good voice from his membership of a choir since school days at Trinity in Kandy . He has been a member Church choirs and of Choral Societies in Colombo , Feilding, Palmerston North, Auckland (Dorians), and Gisborne. He and his wife now sing with the Napier Civic Choir.
He was Chairman of the Government Services Association Branch in Gisborne for many years and is now on the Hawkes Bay Committee.
He distinguished himself as a singer with the New Zealand Festival Choir, Wellington and with the World Festival Choir in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in 1994 in a performance of the Verdi Requiem with Luciano Pavarotti as the tenor soloist
His wife Irma is a daughter of Rev. Clarence Nathanielsz, former Charity Commissioner and Founder of the Lady Lochore Loan Fund in Colombo. This was a fund that rendered yeoman service to thousands of indebted Public Servants. She was born in Newhaven Conn. where her father was pastor of the local Church. They first met in Colombo in 1936 when she was still in school, and were married in the Methodist Church , Colpetty in 1943. They are now very happy great grand-parents. They have travelled widely, meeting members of their widely dispersed family and friends and renewing past associations in many countries.
God has blessed Dr. de Zylva with good health and long life. He is as proud of his country of birth as he is of his country of adoption, and associates with Sri Lankans whenever the opportunity arises in the midst of his busy life.
“I have a number of undertakings in the community which give me a great deal of satisfaction and opportunities to serve others, which has been an important part of my life,” says Dr. de Zylva.
The Sri LankanNZ Web site is pleased to record the life of a distinguished son of Sri Lanka, a fatherly figure in its midst. GOD BLESS AND GRANT HIM GOOD HEALTH AND LONG LIFE.
This story was compiled by M C A Hassan of Rotorua. Who maintains a very interesting website on Sri Lankan activities: http://www.srilankanz.net.nz/screen2.html