The late Columba James Gleeson or more popularly remembered as Brother Columba among his many former students, colleagues and friends, has left an indelible mark in the education and sporting landscapes in Sarawak.
As a young La Salle Brother who first landed in Sibu to take up a teaching post in 1957; at the age of merely 22, it was destined that he would have a remarkable and profound impact on education and the La Salle institutions in Sarawak for the next 40 years. In so doing he made an ultimate sacrifice of leaving home and his loved ones to answer the call of his Creator.
Br Columba belonged to the generation of La Salle brothers who truly take teaching as not just a profession. To them it was a vocation. Education, to them was a means to mould pupils to be citizens of the world and leaders in the societies they live in. It was an opportunity to impact spiritual and moral values, develop character and build individual capacity for a better life. Br Columba belonged to that fraternity and from his long sojourn in Sarawak he was a shining beacon of that generation. He was indeed one of the last, if not the last, to have come half way round the world to make that difference to a generation of children hungry for quality education and an opportunity to have a better future.
His philosophy that education is not only restricted to the classroom can be proven by his relentless push for sports and extra-curricular activities. He believed that character building occurs outside the class room as well. Towards this he spent a good part of his afternoons in the sports field both in Sibu and later in Kuching; coaching, motivating, and developing his charges in the jubilant school athletics, football, rugby, hockey teams and many others to dominate the inter-school meets. Many of his charges became state players in their respective disciplines. Such experiences for success and hunger for achievement prepared many old Josephians to be leaders in their own endeavours after school.
Br Columba was himself an accomplished footballer, actively pursuing his love for the game at inter-divisional and State level tournaments.
St Joseph’s Secondary School, Kuching which he inherited from the late Br Albinus in 1969 was a top school both academically and in sports. Br Columba was committed to make it better. For many years later St Joseph’s retained its status as the top school in the state academically and was also the inter-school sports champion. A person’s achievement is reflected in the product of his labour. The St Joseph’s school of the 1960’s and 1970’s is the product of Br Columba, his predecessors and his truly motivated colleagues. The leadership of the man in stirring interest and commitment among students, teachers and colleagues alike is exemplary of the man and leader he was.
During that era, schooling was not just restricted to 7.30 am to 1.15 pm. The library and classrooms were open for those who could not have the right environment to study at home. They were encouraged to come and use such facilities for free. He took time each evening to “patrol” the premises to ensure that there was silence and work was being done. Many students took that opportunity and can today look back with gratitude for the opportunity and encouragement they received from the man who has just left us. Many boarders of the time could recall how Br Columba also doubled up as a boarding master. He was the mentor, father and tutor all rolled in one to the boarders of the time.
His love for his adopted land was shown by his remaining in Sarawak for another 10 years after his retirement as Brother Director of St Joseph’s. He would have stayed on and died here in the land he so loved. His decision to return to his native Ireland was to spend time with his own family whom he had missed for a good part of his life. In his own words he “wanted to spend time with his siblings who are getting on in years as well”. Therein was the compassionate nature of the man, who in spite of his strong relationship with God, did not neglect his duty as the eldest among his siblings.
Today many ex-students living here and around the world can look back with gratitude to a man who had played a part in making them what they are. As Chairman of the Old Josephians Association I certainly can echo the sentiments of my fellow ex-Josephians. On behalf of the Old Josephians Association I express our deepest gratitude for what he had done for the school and for all of us. His memory will live on in us all. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
YB Senator Prof Dr Sim Kui Hian
Chairman of the Old Josephians Association
Delivered at the St Joseph’s School Auditorium on 13 February 2016