Born on August 11, 1935 at Chengannur in Aalappuzha District of Kerala, the southernmost state of India in an ancient family of average wealth and modest means.
John's parents, Chandy Vergis Vil’anilam and Aleyamma Vergis Vil’anilam were school teachers. John had his early education at the Boys’ High School, Chengannur and at the St. Berchmans’ College, Changanacherry, affiliated to the University of Travancore (which has now become the University of Kerala). He got his first degree, Bachelor of Science in June 1954, even before he had turned 19.
An early achievement during school days was his passing with distinction, the international examination in English typewriting conducted by the London Chamber of Commerce, at the age of 12. Actually he had started typing at home on his father's typewriter at the age of five. Other early accomplishments include winning prizes in English and Malayalam Elocution, Essay Writing, Declamation of Shakespearean passages, Acting, etc. He was also a member of the football team of the school. He passed his English School Leaving Certificate (ESLC) in 1950.
Although he wanted to pursue higher studies in English literature, there was no college nearby offering a Bachelor's or Master’s programme in that subject and he was not wealthy enough to go to a far off college after obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the St. Berchmans. Therefore, he decided to work for some time as a tutor in Chemistry. His maternal grandfather’s brother from Mavelikara, Fr. Thomas Vadakkeveetil, a Roman Catholic priest, introduced him to the principal of the Fatima College in Kollam (Quilon), a coastal town which widened his outlook, and intensified his interest in English language and literature.
His work at the Fatima College and his parents’ help enabled him to gather enough monetary resources for his higher studies in English at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Uttar Pradesh, about two thousand miles away from home. The stay in Banaras and interactions with his peers and professors from all corners of India gave him a better awareness of “the wonder that was Ind.”
Long hours spent in the BHU library were as interesting and useful as the lectures by Cambridge-and-Oxford-trained professors, but more exciting perhaps was the life at the Birla Hostel in the company of young friends, especially our extra-curricular activities: the visits to the crowded city in the cycle rickshaw, eating various ethnic foods, picnics to Sarnath (where the Buddha gave his first Sermon); the long chats with close friends on life’s varied experiences (not much, they were all in their early twenties!); exploits of certain friends in certain parts of the cities, etc.,etc. Two years went by in a trice and Vilanilam returned home with a creditable first-rank Master of Arts in English Literature from the BHU, the largest unitary and residential university in India at that time.
He taught English at the undergraduate level at the Mar Thoma College, Tiruvalla and at the postgraduate level at the St. Joseph’s College, Devagiri, Calicut (Kozhikode). Finding it extremely difficult to manage a household with the limited income (in those days college teachers were paid Rs.125 a month, equivalent to twenty-five U.S. dollars in the 1950s), Vil’anilam moved to another field – working in a business firm, MRF Ltd., in Madras. He retained his interest in writing, speaking, acting and other academic work despite the hectic life in a manufacturing industry. He retrained himself in Personnel Training with a diploma from the Central Labour Institute in Bombay and conducted Training Within Industry (TWI).
Middle management staff were given training in Job Instruction, Job Methods and Job Relations. Besides, Vil’anilam managed the Chairman’s office and edited the house journal of the Company. All this new work landed him in the field of communication and public relations, besides day to day administration.
Vil’anilam MOON-STRUCK at 35 !
Those were the days of man’s attempt to conquer space; several space flights were organized by the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union. Vilanilam hoped that human attempts to solve the mysteries of space would lead humankind to the solving of the ultimate questions in life -- Where do we come from? For what purpose? Why? Where do we go from here? Going into space would certainly find answers to these baffling questions, Vilanilam believed.
Reading books and journals in the USIS library and attending lectures on the latest developments in science and technology relating to space flights opened an entirely new vista before him. His pursuit of knowledge ultimately led him to the United States. But first he wanted to equip himself with more mundane things: How do people communicate. What is the purpose of it? How does interpersonal communication differ from mass communication? What is the system of communication within the human body? How do the media of mass communication function? What ought to be their function in relation to society?
He took several courses in communication and mass communication at the Temple University School of Communications & Theater. His studies there were crowned with a research- and thesis-based Master of Science in Communication. His thesis, AN EVALUATION OF PRESS PERFORMANCE IN INDIA THROUGH CONTENT ANALYSIS, got the 1975 James Markham Prize, the highest award in international communication given by the US Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). A book was published in 1977 by the State University of New York at Buffalo, based on this thesis. Another book, NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNICATION EDUCATION IN SIX SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRIES was also published by the same University in 1979.