Father Watrin: Impressions of an Educationalist

Features Issue 14 Aug, 2010

With its empty echoing hall, framed pictures of former students hanging on the walls and the air of a building waiting to come to life, this office of the GAA (Godaveri Alumni Association) is a venue for different functions and student activities, but during most hours, it has the feel of a school complex when students are on holiday. On the second floor of this Thamel building  is the flat where Father Eugene L. Watrin has lived for the last 33 years.

I find myself there one Monday afternoon with an appointment to meet him, in order to interview him, but am feeling unsure that I will be able to do justice to the four pages I am assigned for this story, to a person who has spent more than 47 years in the service of students and communities in Nepal.

Since I did not have the benefit of studying in Godaveri or St Xaviers, I did not know Fr. Watrin first hand as a student, but I first met him a year and a half ago while at a medical camp at Tinpipalé, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where I was helping out as part of the Social Action Volunteers group. This organization I learned later, was also one of his initiatives, and is a forum through which students and others were given the opportunity to engage in social work in and around the city of Kathmandu. I remember meeting him at this camp and observing the mixture of familiarity and respect the student volunteers treated him with, as he participated in the camp. It seemed to me that whatever the personal motivations these volunteers had for doing their work, the common factor that brought them here was this man.

Before I meet him to conduct a formal interview, I had visited him at his GAA residence to set up an appointment and to get some background information. Father Watrin had welcomed me into his modest flat and shaken my hand with a strong grip as he ushered me in. Tall and lean, his voice had an alertness and clarity that belied his age of 82 years. I told him that I would like to meet him at a later date to conduct a formal interview and he gives me an appointment - and his resume for me to familiarize myself with. It was a one-page document with one and a half sides of print and I thought how telling it was that man should spend over 5 decades of his life doing so much, and then sum up his life in a page. That was one of the first things that struck me about Fr. Watrin, this simple kind of straightforwardness and a sense of personal clarity about who he was – underlined by his one page resume!

Eugene L. Watrin was born on 28th July 1920 in Dayton, Ohio in America. It’s a town that lays claim to fame in the fact that the Wright brothers lived there. He says it was a normal childhood where his father worked with General Motors and his mother was a housewife, and he tells me that he had 3 sisters and one brother he grew up with. Looking for a key moment that might have turned him towards his chosen field, I ask him what it was that put him on his path of service. He tells me simply that he chose it for himself - though his parents and teachers were amongst the people that influenced him in his outlook. So, it seems that there were no visions, no key moments and no drama that turned Fr. Watrin’s life to the service of God. Just a man making a choice about what he wanted to do with his life.

From high school he went to college at Xaviers University Cincinnati for a bachelors degree in literature and then on to Loyola University Chicago from where he earned a M.A. in English as well as an M.Ed in Guidance and Counseling. He was by now a member of the Jesuit priesthood and in 1946, he set sail for India to arrive on January 1947 on the shores of what would be his home for the next eight and a half years.

In 1947 the British were fast losing their grip on the Indian subcontinent and in August 15th 1947, when India gained independence from England, Father Watrin remembers being at Sacred Heart School in Bihar, where he was fulfilling his first assignment. This was followed by two years teaching at St. Xavier’s, Jaipur, a year in Pune, Maharashtra, followed by a stint in Kurseong in West Bengal. In the year before he came to Nepal, he was back in Bihar for a short period and remembers visiting Nepal for the first time in 1955, flying in on a DC3 Dakota. At that time, our international airport was what its original name implied, a grazing ground, and so, when Father Watrin made his second journey into Nepal to begin his work here, it was the monsoon season and the airport was closed. And so, he journeyed through Rauxal on the Indian border to Nepal, and walked for three days over to come to Katmandu. It was May in the year 1955, and he arrived in Kathmandu on the 15th of that month.

Once here, he took up the position of Vice-Principal at St. Xavier’s High School at Godavari, and since it was such a small school back then, he also held the position of Hostel Prefect and Senior English teacher. He also  started the Nepal scouts at Godaveri in the same year. He tells me that there were just 5 students appearing for their Senior Cambridge Examination that year, another five the following year, and 14 in the third year. In 1962 he became the Principal of Godavari High School and held this position till 1967. Two years later, he moved to the city to take up his duties at the newly formed St. Xavier’s School at Jawlakhel and here, between 1969 and 1988, he taught English at the school and was also Moderator and Director of GAA. In the same year, he also started St. Xavier’s College in Maitighar.

By now my conversation with Fr. Watrin had already covered 43 years of his stay in Nepal and in this period, he had already become a citizen of this country. It seemed to me though, that I had missed out on it entirely. After all, what I had were just the simple facts that he taught at school and administered the GAA, and this seemed too little to make a story out of. There was of course his involvement with the GAA and its work, and the SAV and other institutions, but somehow at all seemed too simple. About now it had begun to occur to me that this was pretty much how he saw himself and his achievements. And so it was no wonder that no matter how much as a writer I tried to highlight his achievements (I have a four page resume, compared to his one, and I have not even lived as long as he has served in Nepal), it would just not occur to him to talk about them except in the simplest terms.

So I tryed a different tack in my conversation. “What is it that gives you your greatest sense of satisfaction looking back over the years?” I ask. He answers that it is getting to do what he really wanted to do with his life, and that is, to spend it in the service of others through his faith and his work. Another simple answer that once again compresses the half-century I am trying to unravel in an hour of our time. So what can he tell me about his students then? With ease he begins to lists off names of old boys from the first batch of Godavari students. Many of them, and those that came later, are now in positions of power and respect in Nepali society and he tells me that often he hears some of them jokingly say that he has made them misfits for society, by making them people of honesty and integrity. He smiles as he speaks of this and in his brief smile, I manage to catch for the first time the only hint of pride I get to see in this man. Still, I cannot help have a nagging feeling that it could not have been a life as ordinary as he portrays. After all, he did make a huge contribution towards helping bring modern education into the country, which has, down the line, produced amongst the best minds in the nation. These are the people that have, and are, shaping Nepal society.

He helped mould these individuals, and a virtual army of others, and so, what some of the better aspects of Nepal are today, are a direct result of his work. Of course it cannot be said that it was all his work, as he is a part of the collective efforts of the Jesuit family of Xavier’s and Godavari, but what he has given the nation as an individual, albeit as part of an institution, is something rare.

Before I leave, I ask him if he has some pictures from earlier days that I may look at and he brings an old, thick album from the next room. Poring over them, we come across pictures from an era when photographs were in black and white only, and yellow and faded clippings printed a quarter century ago by the Rising Nepal and other papers trace awards, moments in his life, and moments in the history of Nepal. It is an album filled with memories, as old albums tend to be, and it gives me a glimpse of his history and work, that I could not hope to represent here.

And finally I ask myself; do these four pages do any justice to the life of this man? Probably not, is the answer. But to a man who would write about his life in a page and a half, these four pages might even seem a bit extravagant.

The fact is, his work and life cannot be represented in a few words, or even many. It is represented in the lives of the people he has affected and influenced - and that is a whole lot of lives in the years he has been here. It is not a concept for words to encompass, rather a feeling that is there with those that know him. For here seems to be a man who through his steadfast dedication to his ideals, has done what he set out to do, and more, without making a big noise about it. To me, the man is an example of how one could live a good life, even a great one, if one has the vision and the will to do day by day, what he dreams of doing with his life. And great things will happen. Just look at Eugene L. Watrin.