Behind a Great Personality

When young Suneetha Attygalle arrived at Sydney Australia to study her diploma in Orthoptics through a Colombo Plan scholarship, it was her first day away without her parents. Siri, a Sri Lankan who had lived in Australia for five years was requested to help and look after her. He did the task entrusted to him so well, finally marrying her, with the promise to look after her for life. Unfortunately, he had to leave this world too early, leaving her to look after their children alone.

A quiet house surrounded by tall trees at the end of the street, I met this charming lady, Mrs. Suneetha Caldera, wife of late Professor Siri Caldera, introduced by a friend Archt. Nissanka Attygalle. She was Nissanka’s elder sister. Driven by my curiosity I enquired, and she was kind enough to tell me her memories about her husband.

Siri Caldera got qualified as a draughtsman at age of 19. He received a Commonwealth scholarship to study a six year programme in Quantity Surveying in Australia. He completed the programme within four years, and worked the balance two years as a Quantity Surveyor in Brisbane and Sydney. This was the time he met Suneetha Attygalle. They got married in 1967 and were blessed with three daughters. During this time Siri Caldera worked as the Chief Quantity Surveyor at the Buildings Department. In early 80’s, he left with his family to Nigeria for a two-year assignment. He returned to Sri Lanka following an invitation to lead the establishment of a Quantity Surveying degree course at University of Moratuwa.

“Upon return Siri joined the university as the Professor of Quantity Surveying. He worked very hard to get the course implemented, he spent most of his time at the University”; said Mrs. Caldera. “This was the time he got a very attractive offer to work as the Quantity Surveyor for a project in Kuwait. They even came to Sri Lanka to get him to accept the offer. But he humbly refused saying that he had a greater responsibility here. Had he accepted that offer, he could have been still alive”; she added.

“Siri used to call his students ‘my children’, and he asked me to look after ‘our children’, while he was always worried about the future of his children. I did not go to work as it became impossible to look after three girls and all the work at home while doing a job. Siri did not want to stay away from the university ‘for a second’ as he was always worried about the Quantity Surveying being invaded by some others. What he wanted was to keep Quantity Surveying for graduates, his children. I could realize how much he had to fight for this purpose, from the way he came home exhausted everyday. I asked him not to take that much of stress as it would not be good for his health condition. What he told was that it was only until his first batch of students graduates. Then he could hand over the Quantity Surveying Department (Department of Building Economics) to them and live peacefully thereafter”; Mrs. Caldera awakened the memories. Professor Caldera could not witness the graduation of his first batch of students. He died a few months before their graduations due to a heart failure resulted from high blood pressure.

“It was a troublesome time with JVP insurgence; in addition to this sort of pressure, he had to face the internal pressure from forces within the university which wanted to wipe out the Quantity Surveying degree. The extreme stress and tension increased his blood pressure to high risk levels. Still he did not give up his fight; and that fight didn’t leave him any room to fight for his own life. Finally, we lost him at a time we needed him the most. He died in Kandy; we could not even bring his remains to Colombo due to uncertain situation in the country. His demise brought us lot of hardship. I was not working. Our eldest daughter was sitting for university entrance. She happened to give up her higher education and find employment. The youngest was only eleven years old.”

She told me all these with a smile on her face, but I could feel the sadness within. I could also feel the glow on her face when I said that we still have a photograph of the professor on the department wall, and that “Professor Caldera” is a legend – a story being told by senior students to their juniors as a tradition.

She has been courageous to overcome the hardships she faced. Her elder daughter now lives in Canada. The youngest has become a lecturer following her father’s footsteps and now reading for a PhD. Her second daughter is a lawyer, and she’s the one who lives with her mother.

This is a report from an unplanned interview I had with Mrs. Caldera. There can be many flaws in this article due to my lack of prior preparation and lack of time for her to recall the past leisurely. I like to thank Archt. Nissanka Attygalle, for giving me the opportunity to meet Mrs. Caldera, and for the photographs he later emailed me. Finally, I express my heartfelt gratitude to Mrs. Caldera, for her care and understanding extended to her late husband, which in turn enabled him to reach his dreams, even though he could not live to see his dreams coming true. The only way in which we can repay him is to become world-class Quantity Surveyors. That was his dream and I am sure that he must be still looking after us from heaven.

This is a copy of the article I wrote Quantity Surveying Alumni website in December 2012. I thought of republishing here since the QS Alumni website is revamped and the new website does not contain the article.