By Marlon Ferreira in Los Angeles, California
Sunday (13) was a landmark day for many Sri Lankans, who thronged the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, as the Sri Lanka Foundation in California honoured those who have performed exceptionally well in their chosen professional fields – both in the US and internationally – and in the process, brought honour, glory, and fame to their motherland.
The Sri Lanka Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in 2003 by Dr. Walter Jayasinghe, a well-known Sri Lankan-American physician in Los Angeles, seeks to empower and inspire the younger generation in order to improve the lives and livelihoods of Sri Lankans and their communities worldwide.
Its mission is to educate the global citizenry about Sri Lanka and the achievements of its people, as well as aid in the advancement of the Sri Lankan community globally. The event felicitated a diverse group of high achievers with various categories of awards, while the awardees, who share common cultural ties, each had a distinguished history to share upon receiving their trophies.
The categories of awards included Rising Star, Outstanding Performance by a Young Professional, Exceptional Achievement, Outstanding Community Service, the SriMerican of the Year, the President’s Award, and the most prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
Of the many winners bestowed the highest honour by the Sri Lanka Foundation was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award named Dr. Patrick Mendis, whose acknowledgement speech captured the attention and admiration of everyone in the audience.
As a matter of fact, it was rather intriguing how Dr. Mendis made many in the audience yearn to get to know more of him.
The Sri Lankan-born award-winning American diplomat’s bubbly personality and infectious smile soon attracted many, who approached and also congratulated him for his highly articulated and inspired speech spoken from the lectern that also contained humour, but more so hope – that much can be achieved in life irrespective of humble beginnings.
This writer too had the fortune of spending time talking to him. I reiterate the fact that the more you speak to him, the more you wish the conversation never ended.
From Polonnaruwa to Minnesota
From humble beginnings where life started off in the mediaeval capital city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, came a farm boy to the state of Minnesota in the US on an American Field Scholarship (AFS) way back in 1978.
Arriving from the hot and humid plains of Polonnaruwa to the freezing cold climate of Minnesota, which alone is a huge challenge for many, young Mendis viewed and appreciated the below-zero weather with much delight.
From herding his water buffaloes on his grandfather’s three-acre rice fields in Polonnaruwa, he was soon taking up ice-fishing on the frozen lakes of northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border; moments he described with great pleasure. He learned to speak English in Minnesota.
A journey in America
Forty-four years later, a beaming Dr. Mendis was clutching a trophy awarded to him for the recognition and fame that he had earned through his American journey.
Let me take you on his amazing voyage that led him to the corridors of power in the US Government service in Washington D.C., and around the world.
The life of Dr. Mendis has been an eventful journey dedicated to serving others. In 1967, when he was just seven years old, Dr. Mendis was inspired by two exuberant Americans – a Peace Corps volunteer from New Hampshire and a 4-H exchange student from Iowa – who visited his birthplace of Polonnaruwa and stayed at his grandparents’ home.
Adopted by Christian grandparents, Dr. Mendis spent his formative years with Buddhist monks and Catholic priests.
In 1978, he travelled to the US to attend a yearlong study programme at Perham High School in Minnesota on an AFS scholarship. His AFS family and Minnesotans later “adopted” Dr. Mendis when the Sri Lankan civil war erupted in 1983.
He considers Minnesota his “birthplace” in America. More importantly, the Governor of Minnesota bestowed upon him the title of Honorary Citizen for his leadership and service, long before Dr. Mendis actually became a naturalised US citizen.
The American-inspired farm boy who once herded his water buffaloes grew up to become an award-winning diplomat, educator, author, philanthropist, and executive in Government service in the US.
Dedicated to public service, he worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
After he worked in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1984, Dr. Mendis served in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Ronald Reagan administration.
Throughout his life, Dr. Mendis alternated between an academic career – teaching at Columbia, George Mason, Harvard, Minnesota, Maryland, Oxford, and Yale universities – and in Government service, working in the US Departments of Agriculture, Defence, Energy, and State during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.
As a military professor, he completed a three-year teaching tour between 1997 and 2000 at every major American base in England, Italy, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey in the NATO and the Indo-Pacific Commands of the Pentagon.
At the Department of State, he served as the Secretariat Director of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Chairman of the Interagency Policy Working Group on Science and Technology, and as a Senior Advisor to the US Delegations to the United Nations.
Since 2012, Dr. Mendis served two terms as an American commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State – appointed by the Obama administration – until the Trump White House withdrew from the UN agency in 2018.
Honours and achievements
For his leadership and public service, Dr. Mendis received numerous awards and honours – including the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Meritorious Honor Award, and the USDA Outstanding Leadership Award.
Dr. Mendis is an alumnus of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, the University of Minnesota, and Harvard University. He has established annual financial scholarships at his three alma maters to support students and recognise their extracurricular leadership and academic excellence.
Dr. Mendis has also supported nearly 200 small entrepreneurs through a micro-loan program in over 50 countries.
He is the author of more than 200 books, journal articles, newspaper columns, and government reports.
Dr. Mendis has travelled to or worked in more than 130 countries, visited all 50 US states, lectured at over 25 Chinese universities, and explored every province of China. For his contributions to the Chinese educational system, he was honoured with the prestigious International Confucius Award of China.
More recently, Dr. Mendis has travelled extensively and worked as a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, as well as a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland.
Professor Mendis was named among the “13 World Famous People” born in Sri Lanka. He is listed in Who’s Who of Asian Americans, Who’s Who in America, and Who’s Who in the World.
The professor is a senior non-resident fellow of the Synergia Foundation in India and an elected fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. He currently lives in Washington D.C.
If there was ever a worthy recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award among the overseas Sri Lankan community, then the above accomplishments achieved by Dr. Patrick Mendis over the last four-decades certainly endorse the vitality and stature of the Sri Lanka Foundation of Los Angeles that honoured him.