Wichita loses tireless advocate for global trade

Dharma deSilva, a Wichita State professor with international business connections, died Saturday. (2013)
Dharma deSilva, a Wichita State professor with international business connections, died Saturday. (2013) File photo

Dharma deSilva met Gandhi as a boy and John Kennedy as a young man.

As an intern, he was at the U.N. General Assembly when Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the rostrum.

A native of Sri Lanka, the island nation south of India, Mr. deSilva spent decades helping shape the future of higher education and business in his home country. He taught, or was friends with, several future heads of state in Asia.

Knowing those people and witnessing those events convinced him that countries and people thrive better when they are connected with each other – and he dedicated his life to this principle.

Mr. deSilva, a Wichita State University professor and tireless advocate for global trade and business education, died Saturday in Wichita. He was 83.

He was the founding dean of the Business Management School at USJP in Sri Lanka. Mr. deSilva joined the WSU faculty in 1975 as director of the Center for International Business Advancement. He also was the Rudd Foundation Distinguished Fellow, professor of international business and chairman of the World Trade Council of Wichita, which he co-founded in 1976.

Mr. deSilva was known for his forceful personality, a valuable asset in making those connections.

He was famous at WSU for calling up ambassadors and consuls general of various nations and persuading them to fly to Wichita. There he would host them with banquets attended by hundreds of local business executives, school officials and students.

It gave many Wichitans, including some of the city’s business titans, a chance to make connections with key officials from other nations.

“He was one of the most dynamic human beings that ever I’ve met,” said Ted Vlamis, vice president of Pioneer Balloon. “He was full of energy and had a contagious enthusiasm about international business that everybody around him picked up on.”

Vlamis said that 30 years ago, Pioneer Balloon sold its products only in the United States. But through Mr. deSilva’s advice and connections, the company began to push overseas.

“Now, we sell balloons in 100 different countries,” he said.

As recently as two and a half weeks ago, sick with leukemia, Mr. deSilva hosted an Israeli delegation at a council dinner. The next day he went to the hospital.

“He believed that if you traded with a country, you would have more peace,” said his wife, Deem deSilva, former director of Student Support Services at WSU.

The deSilva family is planning a celebration of his life on April 15. Details are pending.

Since word of his death got out – spread literally around the world – old friends and students have been in contact.

“You know, I talked to one of his old graduate students, and she asked what kind of ceremony we were going to have,” Deem deSilva said. “I told her it wouldn’t be a solemn memorial, but rather a celebration of his life.”

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis