I still remember the first day that I stepped into the campus of Notre Dame University Bangladesh (NDUB), not only because it was wonderful, but also because I came across an eighty-five year old, wearing an antique white helmet and a beautiful smile, riding his white vintage vespa. Rev Fr Joseph Stephen Peixotto, CSC, or as I address him, Fr Joe Peixotto, when I first met him, was the treasurer of the newly established university, built on the shoulders of Notre Dame College (NDC).
My second encounter with him left me even more awestruck as he had said, "Shore Daraw, Nahoy Betha Pabe" (Step aside, otherwise you will get hurt!), as I walked towards him while he was getting his vespa out of the parking lot. Over the years, I have had a lot to learn from him and about him. The more I got to know, the more special he started to seem to me. Ordained as a Holy Cross priest in 1961, Fr Peixotto gave up a commission in the US Air Force and an engineering job at Boeing to join the Old College postulancy at Notre Dame. Soon afterward, he made his way to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) to teach science at NDC.
The young and humble Fr Peixotto went on to become the vice principal and later, the principal in 1968. He retired from the college in 1998, only to keep serving until his last breath. Playing a key role in developing the education sector of the country, he was honoured as an outstanding principal in Bangladesh by Nazrul Islam College and Dhaka Club 1999 for his relentless efforts in the last 24 years.
Fr Anthony Sushanta Gomes, Director of Guidance at NDC, shared his experience of travelling to Teliapara, Sreemongol with his teacher, Fr Peixotto. "On our way to Sreemongol from Saidabad, our bus broke down. While all the passengers were arguing and cursing, Fr Peixotto suddenly walked towards the back of the bus and started pushing it. 'If we all help, the bus will be started in no time' he said. "The others, including me, quickly joined him and the bus was back on the road," he shared. "I was his student back then and still today I remember one thing he said that day. While most of the fellow travellers asked who he was and where he was from, he answered – I have come from my mother's womb, just like all of you. Those three days, where I got to swim with him in the streams of Teliapara and live in a simple mud house with the villagers, was one of the best tours in my life. He taught me to adapt to my surroundings and give up my pride and ego, and presented the joy in simplicity."
The campus of Notre Dame used to be no less crowded than a concert during the college admissions. While the campus could only accommodate a designated number of students, most of the neighbouring residents would often come to visit Fr Peixotto with enrollment requests. "I remember once, while I was a student, a bunch of parents were buzzing like bees in front of Fr Peixotto's cabin. He quietly stepped out and in a very calm voice said, 'I know you all are our neighbours and well-wishers but let me ask you this, there are other colleges in Motijheel and instead of fighting for a place at NDC, why don't we try and make Motijheel Model or Ideal as competent as NDC? Why don't you as citizens take the initiative and include me in the process? I promise I will help you in every possible way that takes these children towards advancement. Let us not just focus on our growth, but also grow together as a community and as a nation," said Abdul Munaf Bachu, Ex Fifa Assistant Referee and Ex-Member, Referee's Committee, Bangladesh Football Federation who is also the founder of Bangladesh Kho-Kho Foundation and currently serves as the coach for the National Women's Kho-Kho team.
NDC often arranged the Fr Joseph S Peixotto Basketball Tournament, where he sat in the audience gallery, screaming, clapping, and cheering his students in his Notre Dame t-shirt. Not only has he left a lot of good memories, but he has also left many administrative etiquettes that ND and its sister concerns have been following for decades.
Fr Peixotto was a generous and selfless man. "I first met Fr Peixotto in 1965 when he was our physics teacher, and have remained close to him throughout my graduate years at NDC. We became close since founding the SERRA organisation in Bangladesh, meeting often and travelling in the country and overseas together," shared Neo G Mendes. "I recall travelling to Mymensingh with him and a member of the Bengal Bouts boxing club. The trip was meant to highlight the inadequate academic resources and raise awareness among the NDU, Indiana students in this regard. He was never short on effort and always invested his time in helping the needy and dispossessed."
To celebrate his legacy, a building named Fr Peixotto Bhaban was recently inaugurated at the NDC campus. "He has served as the principal of the college for the longest time and made unparalleled contributions to the field of science. We were able to inaugurate the centre while he was still amongst us and we are planning to establish 5 labs, including specific ones for biology, chemistry, physics, and computer," said Fr Hemanto Pius Rozario, CSC, who is currently serving as the principal of NDC. "The word simplicity describes him the best, but his contribution in the growth of education in Bangladesh for the last 50 years is far beyond comparison."
Fr Peixotto passed away peacefully on February 4 2021 at the age of 87. He had recently recovered from Covid-19 and was in care at Moreau House, Banasree, in Dhaka. He rests in peace at the Community Cemetery at Pastoral Centre, Bhadun, Pubail.
The author is an alumna of Notre Dame University Bangladesh, and a trainee reporter at Arts & Entertainment, The Daily Star. Write to her at email@example.com.