SXI’s Brother Charles Levin – passing of an institution


These are the gardens that Brother Charles tended to with the help of the St Xavier’s Institution groundskeeper.

In the slideshow above, you can also see a photo of a desktop computer system just set up by friends for Brother Charles to use on the same weekend as his fall. He never got to use it.

The following was originally published on 14 October 2012:

A tribute to Bro Charles Levin (aka Karl Henry Theodor Wolff), the longest-serving Brother Director of the oldest formal surviving school in the country, St Xavier’s Institution, Penang. He passed away in hospital this morning after a fall – one of many he has had in recent years – the previous day. The wake will be held at the SXI Chapel on 14 and 15 October. The funeral mass will also be held in the chapel on Tuesday, 16 October at 11.00am.

Brother Charles Levin
Bro Charles turned up as guest-of-honour at a large reunion in 2011 organised by the the Fifth Formers of 1978. He had just been hospitalised after another fall but that did not stop him from trudging in with a crutch to survey the old ‘troops’. Now the old boys will flock to bid a final farewell to an extraordinary educator.

This blog entry was originally published on 30 September 2007:

From the corridor, I spotted a tall solitary figure strolling in the school courtyard silhouetted in the evening light.

For one moment, it felt as if I had been transported back in time. The setting looked familiar – though there seemed to be a lot more potted plants and greenery around.

“Brother Charles!” I called out.

He spun around to see who had called.

We walked towards each other and I asked him the question that principals and teachers dread: “Do you remember me?” Then I mentioned my name to spare him the embarrassment of replying in the negative.

“Yes, I know you,” he assured me. “I have seen you a a couple of times over the years.”

Coincidentally, we were standing just outside my old Form Five classroom, next to the Brother Director’s office, in St Xavier’s Institution, Penang.

“Do you remember, ours used to be one of the noisiest classes in the school and our classroom here was right next to your office. Everytime, when things got out of hand (in between teaching periods or free periods), you would walk up the corridor outside the back of our classroom and look in. We didn’t realise you were standing at the back, but gradually, one by one, we would spot you glaring at us, and you could hear the noise volume of the class gradually descend to a hush!”

He looked at me quizzically as the memory came flooding back. But then again, he must have done that hundreds – no, thousands – of times over the years.

These days, still looking sprightly despite being an octogenarian, Bro Charles teaches German and spends his time gardening and pottering around the school.

You rarely see that kind of selfless dedication nowadays. You could say he embodies the school motto: Labor Omnia Vincit. Labour, sheer dogged determination and hard work, conquers all things.

Wikipedia says this phrase appears in Virgil’s Georgics, Book I, in the form Labor omnia uicit improbus (“uphill work overcame all things”). The poem was written in support of Augustus Caesar’sBack to the land” policy, aimed at encouraging more Romans to become farmers.

How appropriate then that Brother Charles rolled up his sleeves after his retirement and almost single-handedly transformed SXI into something of a garden school. The greenery provides students with a peaceful, tranquil setting that is conducive for their studies, he explained.

And if you could judge a school by the state of its washrooms, then SXI would be right there at the top with its sparkling facilities. That, Bro Charles told me, was due to the effort put in by Bro Paul Ho, the dynamic current director, who renovated the washrooms a couple of times.

Bro Charles also told me about the time when he personally scrubbed toilets during his time in St George’s Institution in Taiping to demonstrate to the cleaners how it should be done. “We were judged the school with the cleanest washrooms in Taiping!” he told me proudly, the intensity in his eyes and voice still obvious.

Despite all the constraints, Bros Charles and Paul have somehow continued to infuse SXI with typical La Sallian values emphasising the dignity of the individual and sensitivity towards the larger society especially concern for the less fortunate. One of the ways they have done this is through the annual charity drive. This year, the school netted RM90,000, which was channelled to a broad range of charitable institutions.

That spirit of giving has been contagious, opening the eyes of many students to a larger world beyond themselves and to the importance of compassion, of making a difference in the lives of others.

It wasn’t always been plain sailing though. One of the biggest challenges came during the switch in the medium of education from English to Malay. Bro Charles ensured that teachers were gradually exposed to the language by getting the higher form teachers to teach a single subject in the lower forms during the transition period.

He led by example too. Without most people realising it, the German-born principal studied Bahasa on his own and achieved an ‘O’ level credit. “I proved to the teachers that if I could do it, so could they,” he said. But then, Bro Charles always had a flair for languages – he has taught five of them.

Despite his towering, imposing figure, his personal touch when needed has meant a lot to the pupils. He recalled how he once shared a conversation with a young pupil who was waiting for his transport home. Many years later, the pupil returned as an adult and told his former head how much that conversation meant to him, to think that the principal would engage him in conversation.

Somehow I felt I had to thank him for all that he had done over the years for the school, for his zealous commitment to the cause of education for all, irrespective of income levels or ethnicity, for his selfless dedication. I shook his hand and he clasped mine and I said simply, “Thank you, Brother, for all that you have done for us.”

Alma Mater

All through our college a voice is resounding,
Promptly respond to your duty’s sweet call,
Hearken you all for the trumpet is sounding,
Your mater’s proclaiming her watchwords to all

Forward her children dear,
Ever with hearts sincere,
Render with joy to your mater her due,
All that is vile reject,
Heaven will e’er protect,
Sons of St Xavier’s valiant and true,

Labour will conquer your motto still bearing,
Forward with courage in ways that are just,
True to your standard, be doing and daring,
As faithful Xaverians in Heaven your trust

Forward her children dear,
Ever with hearts sincere,
Render with joy to your mater her due,
All that is vile reject,
Heaven will e’er protect,
Sons of St Xavier’s valiant and true!

More:  Brother Charle’s as guest of honour at a large students’ reunion in 2011 and St Xavier’s Institution as the oldest formal surviving school in the land.

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22 Oct 2012 1.58pm

These Ang Mohs who came to Malaya some of whom were great gardeners & planters with true passions for flora of the tropics brought with them their legacy of gardening European style. If one care to study East India colonial history, the British were the ones who brought exotic plant specimens from India & Africa & populated them in our botanical gardens. The care & management of these magnificent gardens were of high standards & they understood Nature better than many of us living in the tropics. Penang Botanic Gardens is one great legacy for us to cherish & protect… Read more »

27 Nov 2012 11.30am
Reply to  tunglang

The head of the Patrician Brothers in Australia has apologised after a brother jailed for child sexual abuse was referred to as a “treasure” in a church publication. Patrician Brother Thomas Grealy was convicted of molestation and buggery charges in 1997. He spent four years in jail for the rape and indecent assault of two boys when he was principal at the Patrician Brothers’ Primary School at Granville in Western Sydney. During his trial the court heard Brother Augustine, as Grealy was then known, would cover the statue of the Virgin Mary in his office with a coat to hide… Read more »

the mythbuster
the mythbuster
16 Oct 2012 7.28pm

The missionary brothers who came as educators were indeed a rare breed. Their passion and dedication to their calling seldom found in most of the run of the mill teachers found in the country. These ‘brothers’ set very high standards in the teaching profession. Now most of these missionary schools are great only in name. The principals and majority of the staff are mostly stand-in jokers. They do not have the passion let alone a dedication to the profession of their choice. To these jokers, running tuition centers comes first in their list of priorities. Teaching is no more a… Read more »

Peter Khiew
15 Oct 2012 3.01pm

All of us at St Michael’s, Ipoh mourn the passing of a great man, Brother Charles. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

15 Oct 2012 7.46am

May he rest in peace & god bless his soul.

One of the last older generation of ‘Brothers’ to be with our LORD for they served dedicatedly & untiring to the the La Salle Order & they have taught thousand of pupils in which many of us owe them what we are today.

He may not have taught but nevertheless I understand how well they had served GOD & gave their best in their service.

22 Jun 2009 11.12pm

where is brother charles now… I studied under him in St. George Taiping, and one of the lasting memory was that he tought the us french songs and he could speak 7 languages… that and also the guy in white carrying the cane where ever he goes…

Last I heard, he is based in SXI, Penang now. – Anil