Neil was born in Matara, Sri Lanka, the second child to Peter and Emelda Karunaratne. Neil grew up in Matara, a beachside city on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, in a large family with three brothers and three sisters. Neil was enrolled at SAC on 17 January 1950 and was admitted as a hosteller. It was during his time at St Aloysius that he developed a lifelong drive for academic achievement and excellence. He obtained a 1st division in the Junior exam in 1952 and a 1st division in the Senior exam in 1954. He was a bronze medalist of the Royal Life Saving Society and a Queens Scout and Troup Leader for a short spell. He passed his Voucher exam in the St John’s Ambulance brigade and was a member of the Under 16 athletics team. Neil was the holder of the Abeyesundere Memorial Scholarship.He left SAC in May 1955, while in HSC I, since the College had no facility for students pursuing a career in Statistics, and joined St. Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia. Neil went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Arts (Economics) at the University of Peradeniya between 1956 and 1959. Following his Bachelor’s degree, Neil subsequently started working, as a lecturer in economics at the University of Colombo, and, also in a government job with the civil service (the Bank of Ceylon). During this time, in the early 1960s, Neil developed an interest in econometrics and began to pioneer the teaching and research in this field in Sri Lanka.
Inspired to develop his academic interests further, Neil then received a government scholarship for a Masters Degree in Statistics at the prestigious Delhi School of Economics in New Delhi, India. Neil completed this degree between 1966 and 1968. Upon completion of this degree, Neil then received another government scholarship to commence a PhD in Economics at the University of Sussex in England. Neil completed his PhD in 1972. He was the first in Sri Lanka to hold a fellowship in Statistics and the first to hold a Doctorate in Industrial Economics.
Neil’s travels outside of Sri Lanka between 1966 and 1972 inspired a passion for mixing travel with professional interests and forming networks with academic scholars in different countries. Neil returned to Sri Lanka in 1973. He then worked at the Ministry of Industries between 1973 and late 1974 as an economist.
On September 27, 1973, Neil married Visvapali Wijeyewardene, the granddaughter of Sir Arthur Wijeyewardene, a former Sri Lankan Chief Justice, in a large and lavish society wedding. Neil’s daughter, Tharindi, was born in Colombo on 23 August 1974. Shortly after her birth, and inspired by the opportunity of further travel and academic adventure, Neil took up a job opportunity as a lecturer at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia.
Neil lived in Brisbane with his family for the rest of his life. The climate approximated Sri Lanka’s and Neil became one of the early and key contributors to Brisbane’s fledgling Sri Lankan community, serving as President of the Sri Lankan Association in the mid 1980s for a time. He became an Australian citizen in 1975.
Neil also retained an association with the University of QLD (UQ) for the rest of his life. He rose to Associate Professor status in the late 1980s and then to Professor in the late 1990s. Neil would relentlessly publish papers, lecture students, and supervise PhDs over the tenure of his employment at UQ. By the late 1990s, Neil was one of the ten most published Australian economists over the preceding 15 years.
Neil’s son, Uthum, was born in Brisbane in March 1978. Neil’s two children grew up in Brisbane as first generation Australians. Neil enjoyed spending time with his family, particularly taking his family to the Gold Coast for a swim at the beach, and playing tennis with his kids.
Neil continued to travel as an academic, gracing universities in Hawaii, Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Fiji, and Singapore amongst countries as a visiting professor between the mid-1970s and 2015. Neil enjoyed above all helping and mentoring junior academics. Many eminent academics around the world owe a debt of gratitude to Neil for his generosity and guidance. Neil was one of a small handful of Sri Lankan economist academics in the 1960s and 1970s that opened the doors of Sri Lankan scholarship to the wider world.
Neil retired as a fulltime academic member of staff at UQ in 2002, but continued actively publishing papers, presenting at conferences, lecturing on a casual basis, and accepting visiting professorships around the world. He continued working on a fulltime basis until 2008, when an unexpected heart attack slowed him down. He recovered, and continued to work on a part-time basis until early 2016.
Neil’s health gradually deteriorated in 2016 and he eventually passed away after a long period in hospital, on December 19 2016. He is survived by his wife Visvapali after 43 years of happy marriage, his son Uthum, aged 38 years, his daughter-in-law Sabina and a baby grandson, Charles. His adult daughter Tharindi passed away in 2005, easily the saddest event of Neil’s life.
In remembering Neil, as his son, I remember his undying generosity, intellect, discipline, diligence, charisma and capacity for enduring hard work and hard times. He taught me the most important lessons in life – “never ever give up”, “ education is a passport”, “take responsibility for your actions and your life”, “a healthy body has a healthy mind” – lessons instilled over decades and in various circumstances. He could dominate a dinner table conversation, but could just as easily work quietly away at his computer for endless hours, finessing a paper to completion. He was by far my life’s biggest influence and authority, the legislator of my own goals and pathway. Ultimately Neil lived a wildly successful and productive life, full of achievement. He had made a quantum leap in his life, and was, in many ways, an inspiration and teacher to all those who had the privilege to know him.
Dr Uthum Dias (Neil’s son)
THOUGHTS IN APPRECIATION
I remember Neil as an energetic half-back at soccer in ”College” those days in the 1950s—but may well be confusing him with his elder brother Shelton, both boarders and thus in Cooreman House against whom I in Murphy House was pitted on occasions. Because Neil moved to S. Thomas’ College we did not renew acquaintance us till we crossed paths again at Peradeniya Campus. He was not in Ramanathan Hall as I was so our interactions were sporadic. However, I was never comfortable with Economics, one of my GAQ (First Year) subjects and I turned to Neil and Bimal Padmaperuma on occasions by borrowing their tutorials to improve my stock of knowledge.
After graduating we went on different academic paths, but kept in touch and I recall meeting him occasionally in Colombo on topics to do with political economy at some points in the 1960s and/or 1970s. After our family left for Germany in 1975 and thence to Australia our journeys diverged. So it was a pleasure to have him stay with us in the 1980s when he visited Adelaide for a conference. We even ventured forth for a boy’s night out on the town.
Thereafter we kept in desultory touch and I met him on some occasions when I visited Brisbane conferencing. With retirement in 2003, however, such trips ceased and our interaction was limited to the academic fare of emails once I mastered that machinery over time.
As it happened my wife and I holidayed near Bundaberg last May/June 2016 and stayed with friends in Brisbane on our way back to Adelaide. So, I was able to meet up with Neil again. We had a longish chat late one night. I felt he was ailing, but did not probe further. I am pleased we met and ‘ventured’ back to old times.
Vale Neil Dias Karunaratne, that impish smile embodies an energetic and fulfilling life. Michael Roberts
AN EMAIL NOTE from Professor GERALD PEIRIS of Peradeniya University, 14 March 2017