Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert
Rodney, the ‘silent knight’ of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service has departed
quietly into the sunset. He departed, the way he lived, with quiet dignity,
without fanfare, fuss or bother…… in his own inimitable style.
Rodney’s unexpected departure has left his family and friends engulfed in deep sorrow. The sad news of Rodney’s demise reached me in the early hours of a cold morning in Geneva when my wife called me from hospital within minutes of his passing away. The initial shock and sense of disbelief gradually gave way to a flood of thoughts of Rodney and the happy times we spent together – a friendship spanning over 30 years. I was grappling with a range of emotions until the sun, I thought somewhat reluctantly, finally broke through the dark clouds hanging over Geneva valley.
My mind went back to 1979; I had a few years before ventured out to start a career as an international lawyer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rodney returned that year to the Ministry after his tour of duty in New York, having worked under the late Shirley Amerasinghe, when Sri Lanka was basking in that “one brief shining moment of our own Camelot”. We were the Chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference, the Non Aligned Movement and held the Presidency of the UN General Assembly. New York was the epicentre of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic initiatives. Rodney returned to Colombo with this rich experience behind him.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs too was undergoing radical change; a Ministry that had functioned directly under the Prime Minister since the dawn of Independence was now de-linked and was vested with a separate identity under a Foreign Minister. A new government had assumed office with an overwhelming mandate and a Ministry that had hitherto been insulated from domestic political forces was beginning to feel the impact of such forces. The economic environment was beginning to undergo radical change; a centrally-planned economy was giving way to a liberalized economy. These changes made it imperative that in the implementation of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, the necessary changes were effected, transforming the traditional political diplomacy to an economic diplomacy.
In a sense it was ‘the best of times’ and perhaps the ‘worst of times’. Certainly these were uncertain times. A young officer embarking on a career in the Foreign Ministry needed the sure and steadying hand of an experienced mentor and a dependable colleague to guide him through this uncertain terrain. Rodney assumed duties as Legal Adviser and offered his hand of friendship and I clasped it firmly. It was the beginning of a close friendship which was to make a deep impact on my career.
I shall always treasure pleasant memories of working together with Rodney in the Legal Division attending to the multitude of tasks then being assigned to us. He was the true professional, looking into minute detail, be it a complex treaty issue on which advice was sought or a routine Diplomatic Note that was being drafted. (We always prepared thoroughly before attending any meeting!) I particularly remember accompanying Rodney to attend meetings of a Presidential Committee appointed to finalize Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements, a virgin territory then, in the immediate flush of economic liberalization. Rodney explained at length the complexities involved, which may not always have been to the liking of some who thought that the only guiding principle in attracting foreign investment should be the maxim ‘let the robber barons come,’ but they all listened to his point of view which was always well articulated and respected his views.
Rodney’s sense of professionalism, the ability to be a team player and work together with colleagues, both within the Ministry and outside, and to be above the fray of narrow turf battles, left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I am sure to others closely associated with him.
I also enjoyed Rodney’s warm hospitality and company, on his postings abroad as Ambassador. His first appointment was as High Commissioner to Ottawa. Rodney had arrived in Ottawa without the family initially, and was attending to all the work involved in presenting credentials. He looked into every detail, which was nothing unusual. I was on a UN scholarship in Montreal at the time and used to commute to Ottawa to spend the weekends with Rodney. Not leaving anything to chance, Rodney wanted to rehearse the credentials presentation ceremony the evening before and I stood in for the Governor General of Canada. The next morning standing on the steps of the Ottawa Residence with Sri Lankan friends, we watched Rodney being driven to the Governor’s residence in horse carriage to begin another chapter in hislong career.
Rodney’s next posting was to Moscow, at the time the capital of the Soviet Union. In the winter of 1989, I had the opportunity of visiting this great city about which I had heard so much and enjoying the hospitality of Rodney and Cheryl .What I did not know then, was that these were the last days of the mighty Soviet Union and that consequent to the Gorbachev policy of Perestroika and Glasnost, cracks were beginning to appear on this mighty edifice, which once looked so solid.
Rodney took me through the usual landmarks, including the Kremlin Palace. He was particularly keen to walk me through the streets of Moscow to show me something extremely unusual then, perhaps taken for granted now. This was to get a sense of the spirit of re-awakening that was rapidly spreading among the people of Russia. I vividly recall the speech-makers, the soapbox orators in the street corners of Arabat, enjoying their new found sense of freedom, a phenomenon unthinkable in the pre-Gorbachev era. Rodney had been a keen observer of the sea change that was sweeping through Russian society and gave me a vivid description of the current political changes in Moscow. But whether Rodney or I could ever have anticipated the grand finale that was soon to follow – the collapse of the Soviet Union – is entirely another matter.
Rodney was also a godfather to the Sri Lankan student community in Moscow, always willing to give his ear and lend a helping hand to them. To these young people far away from their homes, in an alien environment, Rodney and his family was a great source of comfort.
Rodney’s final posting as Ambassador was to China in Beijing. My commitments at the time did not permit me to visit Rodney in this magnificent city, much to my regret.
As Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rodney presided over, [with complete acceptance to the political leadership of the day,] the transition from the 17-year United National Party Administration to the People s Alliance Administration in 1994. During this period, he forged a constructive working relationship with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, which greatly contributed to the efficient functioning of the Ministry. I recall vividly the late Lakshman Kadirgamar’s first visit to the Foreign Ministry, when I accompanied Rodney and Additional Secretary Jayantha Dhanapala to brief the new Foreign Minister. Rodney together with Jayantha gave a detailed briefing to the Minister on the many issues pending from the previous administration in order to identify priorities of the new administration. For me this was a classic expose of an orderly transition between governments and particularly in maintaining a bi-partisan foreign policy.
Perhaps a lesser known fact is Rodney’s academic background. In the mid 1950’s he obtained his Degree of Bachelor of Laws from the University of Ceylon having read for the degree as one of nine undergraduates of the Law Faculty of the University of Ceylon, which was at that time housed in Peradeniya. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1960. He completed his Advocates finals in the early 1970s and was admitted to the Bar. Although he did not go into active practice, his abiding interest in the law, saw him completing his Masters in Law degree at NYU.
While in Sri Lanka, Rodney responded to the call of the Law Faculty to serve as a visiting lecturer in International Law. He discharged this responsibility with the same degree of meticulousness that he displayed in the Foreign Ministry. It was in this capacity that he was appointed Supervisor of my doctoral thesis. It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I recall the time he devoted to this task amidst his manifold duties in the Ministry. Rodney was the happiest when I was elected to serve on the International Law Commission in 2006 and he gave me every encouragement as I ventured down a new path on the eve of my retirement from the Public Service.
During my career spanning 32 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was fortunate to serve under several outstanding public servants. Among them, late W. T. Jayasinghe and Rodney Vandergert have left a deep impression on my career, with their dedication to duty, sense of integrity and high degree of professionalism. They both moved on within a short space of a month or more of each other and the personal sense of loss is immense. However the sense of values and commitment to principle they both inculcated in us, during their sojourn, gives me much comfort and courage.
Many who had the opportunity of bidding Rodney a final farewell speak of Rodney’s mortal remains with his usual smile, dressed in the navy blue suit, which had fate not intervened, he would have worn for daughter Niloufer’s wedding next month.
I prefer to remember Rodney the way he was and the warm goodbye he bid me at his home, a few days before I left for Geneva, only a few weeks before he left us. We had enjoyed a good dinner and talked into the night, of men and matters, as we always did.
These are the memories that will linger on………
(The Sunday Time - 21/06/2009)
With the passing away of RCA Vandergert, another oak in the Foreign Service has
fallen; and we are the poorer by it. Mr. Vandergert could be well described as a
pioneer in this country’s diplomatic service having joined what was then a still
fledgling Ceylon Overseas Service, in 1960. To those of us like me who followed
him in to the profession nearly 3 decades or so later, he exemplified old world
charm, much of which had vanished by the time we arrived on the scene.
Very generous to a fault, he insisted on us young cadets on the need to apply oneself with diligence and seriousness to work. He did not exhort by mere words alone but led by practice. Happily caught in the coils of work, he like many others of that generation considered working half a day on Saturday more as a norm than an exception. Spelling mistakes or even a missing comma were particularly revolting and none missed his eagle eye, they being marked three times over and circled for good measure! When a report did not embody all what was expected, it would be sent back pronto with a concisely written minute flowing off an extremely neat fist, listing how best it could be improved. But when one was good he never attempted to gild the lily and complimented the compiler – "Vandergert here" he would promptly say into the extension line "I say that brief on …… was excellent".
Once, so many years ago, in the course of drafting a speech, he sent off a young recruit to the British Council just to check on a particular comma in the "Rubaiyat" which was missing in his copy - devoured by silver fish. "Now, please ensure that you check it on Fitzgerald’s translation and no one else’s", he insisted upon the young man whose academic brilliance lay in a field far removed from literature. With such punctiliousness in the days before the arrival of the now ubiquitous personal computer, compiling reports and week-end briefs or even a letter became a challenge, specially for the hapless stenographer, with sometimes more than two drafts having to be typed all over again until the desired excellence was achieved! But the value of it all had to be experienced to be believed. Almost naturally, the striving for similar excellence by those who were fortunate to come under his tutelage was evident in their own work as they climbed the professional ladder in later years.
The gentleman was blessed with a fine mind and an innate capacity for grasping the subtleties of a complex situation. Perhaps this had its roots in a more than passing interest in the law - he did have an Ll.M, though he was never one to wear it on his sleeve. Rancour and envy he had none.
By the late 80s and early 90s, Rodney Vandergert, John Gooneratne, Manel Abeysekera, Jayantha Dhanapala, Nihal Rodrigo, Alfred David, among others of that vintage, were in their prime, having completed a quarter century and more in the Foreign Service. The likes of Bernard Goonetilleke and Daneshan Casie Chitty were to reach that milestone shortly thereafter. Many of them had imbibed the "Peradeniya tradition", post Ludowyke, and all had drunk deeply into the Queen’s language, and often new recruits were treated to a colorful nugget here or a Shakesperian quote there. In such company, Rodney Vandergert would be in his element, whether at cracking a joke filled with pun or, in a serious mode, explaining the finer points of a political development unfolding in some part of the world. Listening to him and the others was an edifying experience, not merely for the points conveyed but for the particular idiosyncrasies with which they were expressed.
For a diplomat, Mr. Vandergert was rather uniquely attired – he cared less for the frills of a crisply ironed and creased shirt and trousers, but for all the simplicity, he was well turned out at all times. The only thing of any material value on him was an old stainless steel watch, the white dial of which had been browned by time. When told of Carl Muller’s description of "the elf-faced Vandergert" in a novel, he laughingly shot back "at least my schoolmate got a better description of me than even a photographer could".
Frugality with government funds was a professional ideal and a personal passion, and even as Secretary Foreign Affairs he took time to fine comb any expenditure, ever questioning the need for something he thought could be avoided. At times he would take such exactitude to Gilbertian heights! But that was Rodney Vandergert.
Uniquely approachable and helpful for an official of his seniority, Mr. Vandergert was Mr. Simple at all times. He would deflate any pompous cadet’s ego by relating a story of how whilst on a posting to Islamabad as a young diplomat, he had to personally carry and even a feed a rare parakeet which was a gift from the government of Sri Lanka his High Commissioner was to handover to a Pakistani Zoo. Then he would regale us with the story of how he had to sometimes take the weekly incoming diplomatic bag to the racecourse where he and his High Commissioner, a keen turfite, would discuss its contents as the boss lowered his gaze in between races!
Rodney Vandergert served Sri Lanka with distinction in many overseas posts, capping off a remarkable career as High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to the Soviet Union and finally as Head of Mission in China. Endowed with excellent analytical skills, his usually long and cascading reports were a pleasure to read not only for their originality and depth but for their remarkable syntax and idiomatic expression.
His lifelong passion was books. We would often see him reading one while at lunch; usually a sandwich which he used to draw rather neatly from a little tiffin box. I distinctly remember him pouring over "Pride and Prejudice", with the intensity of a first timer. "I am still discovering it, even on reading it for a fourth time", he exclaimed.
The best portion of a good man’s life are his little unremembered acts of kindness, and Mr. Vandergert had many. As the evening sun on May 5 dipped its rays over the Borella Cemetery and those present at the last goodbye slowly withdrew homeward into the enveloping darkness, surely one thought would have preoccupied them all: we had just laid to rest an honorable and simple man. Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert was indeed more than the sum of his parts.
Farewell, Sir, and thank you for the memories.
(The Island - 07/06/2009)
R.C.A. Vandergert - a tribute
Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert passed away on 4th May 2009. The lawyer, diplomat joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service in 1961. During his formative days he functioned as Assistant Secretary, Deputy Director in various divisions of the Ministry of Defence & External Affairs and also in various capacities in Sri Lanka Missions abroad.
I came into contact with him towards the latter part of the seventies when he was the legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It had been a pleasure to work under him as he had been a very humane person and a gentleman par excellence.
He left us in 1980 when he was appointed the High Commissioner to Canada and upon his return after a successful tour of duty; he held high positions in the Foreign Ministry such as Director United Nations & Multi Lateral Affairs Division, Director-General Political Affairs etc. He was elevated to the highest position in 1994 as Secretary to Ministry of Foreign Affairs which post he held in high esteem. He was only the second career diplomat who became the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
He always looked placid and relaxed even in tough problematic situations and his inspiring friendliness coupled with courtesy and patience won the hearts of all who worked with him. I never saw him in anger and never heard him speaking in an aggressive tone. I also can never forget his face which was always lit with smiles.
He was a devout Catholic who preached what he practised, discharged his duties without fear or favour, harbouring ill-will to none. The honesty and integrity of character, the devotion to duty, the simplicity in no small measure, earned the respect of all who came in contact with him.
May he rest in peace!
Vivian Fernando Panadura
Daily News June 11 2009