by Dr. Win Aung (M62)
I greatly appreciate the kind remembrances about my father, Saya C. Ping Lee (EE). My father probably typified the group of highly qualified and dedicated faculty, led by Dean U Ba Hli, that came together in BOC College right after WW II. He often spoke about his high respect for his colleagues, the sayas and sayagyis with whom he worked, and about his pride for the students in the College who answered the call to take up engineering so as to help rebuild a motherland long exploited by colonial rule and recently ravaged by WW II.
In his view, the combination of a great faculty and excellent students had led to a high academic standard in BOC College and, later, at RIT. This was evidenced by the large number of students and graduates accepted into and successfully completing their graduate studies in prestigious universities overseas.
Though I did not get to know all of his students at BOC College, my father talked highly and often about them throughout his life. My father was described as a compassionate” teacher. I would also use the word “compassionate” to describe the way that he generally dealt with people. I have never heard a negative word uttered by him about anybody. An unassuming man with simple tastes, his life spanned most of the turbulent 20th Century Asia; yet he was perpetually optimistic, and remained devoted to students, friends, and family.
After attending the RIT Alumni Reunion and SPZP last month, I visited his grave site as is my custom every time I visit San Francisco. On that serene hilltop under a warm October sun, I ran my hands over the marble monument in front of the grave site, and dusted it with a damp cloth. Inserting into the urns adjacent to the headstone the few stems of mixed flowers that I had brought, I stood silently to pay my respect. I looked toward the rolling hills across the way, and pondered on how much my father, if he had been alive, would have enjoyed the just-concluded festive event staged by RIT Alumni International.
Looking at his image on the monument in front of me in that October sunshine, I realized how hazy is my memory about my father’s life at BOC College. No doubt, I have an impressionist’s sketch, as outlined below, but not many details. Asians in our generation seldom go to our elders and ask about history with the idea of recording for posterity. Then, one day, they are gone forever, taking with them our opportunity to get the facts as they lived them.
That is why your request for his former students and colleagues, to come forward with their own remembrances, is now so timely and highly appreciated. The Chinese believe that if you cast a pebble someone may throw a stone in return that may turn out to be a piece of jade. Let me, therefore, cast a pebble in the form of a brief outline of my father’s life. I sincerely hope that our readers can fill in the details.
Born in Prome in 1911, my father attended St. Paul’s High School (SPHS) in Rangoon and later the University of Washington in Seattle, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. After going to China to marry, he worked for a while as an engineer in a power station in Canton. When war came to Southern China, he returned to Burma where he became the chief engineer at the Baldwin Mines in Namtu. I vaguely remember the idyllic life as a young boy living in one of the four estates built for senior officials of the Mines atop a hill overlooking the town of Namtu.
During WW II, he and his family were first captured by the Japanese Army, and later becoming refugees constantly running from the shifting battlefronts. Jungles, hunger, bombs, diseases, forced labor, air aids, surrender of the Japanese troops, swords wielding robbers in the night, post-war re-settlement in Rangoon: my father and his family endured them all.
If it is true that engineering is one of the broadest profession there is, then my father’s versatility and adaptability were certainly emblematic of it. In post-war Rangoon, he gained the confidence of Mr. Fung Mei Chow, a business tycoon and a philanthropist, who founded a newspaper and an elementary school, among other charities. My father worked as manager of the newspaper business, hiring a highly qualified editor from overseas. My mother became a teacher in the elementary school, where I completed my Grade 1-6 education. Years later, I would meet Mr. Chow’s granddaughter — Juliet Chow — as a fellow-student at the University of Rangoon. She is now Mrs. Myint Lwin (H. Num Pon). I was delighted to see both Saya and Mrs. Myint Lwin at the RIT Reunion and SPZP last month.
In 1950 my father’s good friend, the late Saya U Kyaw Tun, Lecturer in the Electrical Engineering Department at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Rangoon (the BOC College), recommended to Dean Saya U Ba Hli to appoint my father as Lecturer in the Department. At the Reunion and SPZP, I saw Dorothy Kyaw Tun, Saya U Kyaw Tun’s younger daughter who was my neighbor at Prome Hall and whom I had not seen for over 40 years.
In 1952, a call came from the Hon. U Than Aung, Burma’s first post-war Minister of Education and my father’s former Burmese teacher at St. Paul’s High School. U Than Aung [father of Ko Aung (a) Alphonso and Ko Cho (a) Charlie, both RIT alums] asked my father to help build the infrastructure for technical and vocational education in post-war Burma. My father became the first Burmese national to assume the position of Director of Technical Education. Thus, he became a contemporary of U Kaung and U Cho. U Kaung [father of Saya U Thaw Kaung, Chief Librarian, Rangoon University Central Library] was the legendary post-war Director of the most famous and largest of the three Directorates in the Ministry: the Directorate of Education. U Kaung’s office dealt with the education system for elementary and secondary schools in all of Burma. U Cho was Director of the third directorate: the Directorate of Teacher Education which concerned teacher preparation for elementary and secondary schools.
As Director of Technical Education, my father was responsible for manpower development in vocational schools at various levels, ranging from trade schools, technical high schools, to post-secondary technical institutes. Over a period of 8 years (1952-1960), my father laid the foundation for Burmese technical and vocational education programs, by establishing and directing a network of technical and vocation schools across the country, from Rangoon to Mandalay to Myitkyina.
The most well-known among the schools was the Government Technical Institute (GTI) in Insein. Though my father was often thought to be the principal of GTI, he was in reality never its principal. It was one of the several schools and institutes under his jurisdiction; it was headed by a succession of bright, fresh Burmese state scholars returning from further studies abroad.
Next in terms of fame and recognition was the Technical High School at Natmauk Road, Rangoon. The well known state scholar and soccer player, U Jimmy Sein, served for a time as Principal of the Technical High School. The Engineering Evening Classes were also held on the premises of that school. The faculty for these college-level classes was drawn from the most well qualified practicing engineers from around Rangoon.
Not far away on Boundary Road was the Boundary Road Vocational School, also under my father’s jurisdiction. The principal of the Boundary Road Trade School during the 1950’s was the highly respected U Thwin, whose two daughters, Daw Tin Tin Ohn (Amy) and Daw Ni Ni Thwin (Dolly), both now deceased, were RIT alumni.
My father’s office was at first located on the premises of the Boundary Road Vocational School, but later moved to the Technical High School at Natmauk Road across from Bogyoke Park when the building of that school was completed with funding by the Ford Foundation.
In 1960, my father joined UNESCO in Paris, France as Chief, Division of Technical Education, in which he was responsible for UNESCO development programs in vocational education. His impact was especially important in emerging economies in Asia and Africa such as those in Taiwan, Philippine, Sierra Leone, Ghana, etc.
He retired from the UNESCO in 1969 and settled down among his children and grandchildren in Berkeley, CA. Much beloved by all who knew him, he continued to receive visitors there, enjoying reading and actively practicing tai-chi. He passed away in April 1986.
To this day, I still remember some of my father’s most important teachings: be a good, honest person and make your time count; trust in the goodness of others and of life; pay attention to your work; treat others as you would have others treat you.
Ph.D., Dr.h.c., P.E .