Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Eliel Homer Titus

Family Tribute to Eliel Homer Titus

Obituary: Daily News, May 20, 2005

TITUS - ELIEL HOMER - Formerly of Shell, MD Lankem, retired, died peacefully on 14th May 2005 in Sydney, Australia. Beloved husband of Rukmani (nee Joseph), loving father of Jehan (Urologist, Adelaide), Kamini (Orthodontist, Sydney), and Rohan (Australian Dept. Foreign Affairs & Trade), father-in-law of Fiona, Anthony and Sandi, grandfather of Alexander, Samuel, Daniel, Thomas, Andrew and the late Charlotte, caring brother of the late Chrisoula, Spiro (UK) and Andre (Australia).
Memorial Service on 21st May 2005 at 10.30 a.m in St. James' Anglican Church, Turramurra, Sydney. In lieu of flowers, a donation towards a scholarship at Trinity College, Kandy preferred. For further information, contact Rohan Titus, 57/6, Flower Rd, Colombo 7.


Dad loved life. He loved family and friends getting together. He would have loved the sandwiches and slices waiting for us in the memorial hall. He would have caused mayhem by giving all the little ones sweets and telling the rest of us jokes, and simply with that look on his face, which can only be described as a contained chortle, he would have lifted all our spirits.

So it would be a terrible thing, if this man whom we all remember as someone who made us smile, was remembered with sadness and gloom. And I can assure you that if ever there was cause for happiness, dad’s life is it. He was a marvel. He defied all expectations, courageously living with a massive inoperable brain aneurism. Right through to the very end, on Saturday last, dad was an inspiration and a role model.

When I was a little boy, I thought my daddy was ten feet tall. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I could strut around the playground and kick sand in the other kids faces, because my daddy was better than anyone else’s dad. I’m sure most little boys would say the same about their fathers. As I grew older, my friends started to question how accurate their assessments were. So naturally, did I. We all grow up.

So who was this man to whom I had given super hero status?

Well, firstly, dad was fun. He told the best stories. Until I was about six years old, I was absolutely convinced that dad and Tarzan were close personal friends. He would point to scars (both real and imagined) and tell me how one was caused by a Zulu spear, or a pygmy blowpipe, or a poacher’s blunderbuss. Now with most dads, such tales were completely implausible, but with my dad, you believed him. For one thing, my Uncle André had a stuffed leopard and a tiger skin. It’s hard to keep your sense of perspective with props like that.

But the truth was even stranger than the adventure stories. Eliel Homer Titus was born on Sunday, 20 September 1931 in Basra, Iraq, not far from the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. A strange place for a half Greek, half Ceylon Tamil Anglican to be born, but then, if you’d asked his parents, they would have thought Killara was an odd place for him to die.

My grandfather, Edward, was the 57th Sri Lankan to sign up for active duty in the Great War. The only ‘native’ unit raised in Sri Lanka for overseas service was the Ceylon Sanitary Company. Not very glamourous work, but they were the only ones going overseas, so off he went. Because of his fluency with English, he soon found himself doing clerical work in the company headquarters. The unit was sent to the Middle East. Edward’s father had died when he was very young, and his mother remarried. His young wife, carefully chosen for him according to the customs of the Tamil community, died of smallpox within a few months of their marriage. After his demobilisation in 1919, having no reason to return to Ceylon, Edward remained in the Middle East, and worked as a civilian clerk in the British Middle East Command Headquarters.

My grandmother, Despina, was the eldest daughter of Antoniou Spiros Zacharakis, a prosperous cheese-maker from a small town in what is now the European part of Turkey. In my grandmother’s youth, however, this was part of Greece. When Greece and Turkey went to war in 1923, the Turks advanced through the Greek province of East Thrace, and a new border was set between the two countries when peace was restored. My great-grandfather died in a Turkish prisoner of war camp, and my great-grandmother found herself to be a refugee on the wrong side of the border with three children. She fled to Thessalonika, having left behind all their belongings in Thrace. My grandmother, who was the eldest, went to live with her aunt, who had married a Greek merchant and lived in Baghdad. There she met my grandfather, who was a business partner of her uncle. It was 1928. She was about 16, he was about 29, and to the horror of everyone in Sri Lanka and in Greece, they got married and settled down in Iraq to raise a family.

Dad was the eldest of Edward and Despina’s four children. He was baptised as Omeros, because even though my grandfather Edward was an Anglican, my grandmother’s forceful personality ensured that dad was baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church. His sister Chrisoula was born in 1937, and his brothers Spiros and Andreas were born in 1938 and 1941 respectively. I have no proof, but again I suspect my Greek grandmother got the final vote in choosing the names of her children. I don’t mind, because I have eaten free souvlaki and baklava in milk bars all over Australia on the strength of these simple facts.

Dad was an inquisitive and fearless child with a great sense of adventure. He was fascinated by machinery. He discovered that he was an expert at dismantling the family wireless set. Sadly, reassembly eluded him. His first attempt to drive a car was not impeded by the fact that he was too small to see over the dash, or reach the pedals. A fruit case, a brick and a sense of bravura got him as far as the Shatt al Arab, that famous confluence of the Tigris, the Euphrates and the buick.

Dad had a keen sense of natural justice all his life, though in his youth, it was more of an Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ nature. In Iraq during the 1930s, there were few medical practitioners, and fewer qualified dentists. My grandmother often had to treat dad for common childhood problems. A loose tooth, for instance, was fixed by tying the offending incisor to a piece of string and pulling it sharply. Despina did this by tying it to the doorknob and closing the door. Dad did not consider the score even until the next day, when, after stalking her for some time from deep cover, he was able to shoot her with his air-gun as she bent to sweep the floor.

In 1939, as the threat of war loomed over the Middle East, dad was sent to boarding school in Sri Lanka. My grandfather chose his old school, Trinity College, Kandy, which was an Anglican Church Mission Society school in the centre of Ceylon. Those of you who have attended an Anglican boarding school will understand what I mean when I say how indelibly such an experience alters the psyche of a child. My grandfather, who had travelled to Ceylon to enrol dad at Trinity stopped at the gate of the school and said to my father. “Now son, take a moment. Shout, stamp your feet, tantrum and carry on for as long as you like, and when you are quite finished, and you have composed yourself, we’ll walk through that gate and you will have to behave like a man for the rest of your life.” Dad was not yet eight years old.

Within six hours, he had earned the distinction of the boy with the shortest time interval between enrolment and being caned in his year. Trinity was in for a rough few years.

It didn’t take long for Trinity to turn the potential rebel into the leader. Dad’s energy was channelled into sport. His skill for running into trouble became a skill at running between wickets. His deadly aim with an air-gun helped him fire the ball through the gap in the outfield. His restless, inquisitive nature meant that he tried every possible sport. By the time of is ‘O’ levels, dad had his colours in cricket, boxing, swimming, athletics and rugby.

Along with his developing sporting talents, dad was also developing leadership skills. His two brothers came out to Sri Lanka to join him. Dad took his responsibilities as the eldest very seriously. The tragic loss of his sister in Iraq to typhoid in about 1945 added to dad’s sense of anxiety about the health and safety of his brothers - and later, his family.

Towards the end of his schooling, dad made the first of many bold decisions. He decided that Trinity would not be able to help him get into University. Though the school had many great virtues, dad was not meeting his potential academically, and he knew that he needed every bit of help that he could get to improve. So without any consultation with his parents, dad changed from Trinity College in Kandy, to St Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, where he studied from 1949 to early 1951. In the short time that he spent there, dad quickly demonstrated the skills he needed to win the cricket prizes for both batting and bowling - he got his colours for cricket, boxing, soccer, swimming and small-bore rifle shooting. he was also in the choir, the debating team and a server in the chapel, but most importantly in his view, he also raised his academic results and got into the University of Ceylon to read Medicine. Dad was so reticent to talk about his sporting achievements, both at school and University, that I still don’t know for certain how many matches he captained the University of Ceylon cricket team. Or what his batting or bowling averages were. I do know that he played against the touring MCC team in Kandy, and that he also toured to India and Malaysia with Sri Lankan teams - as this was before Sri Lanka became a test cricket country, the records of these matches are not available. Dad left an impression on those who saw him play.

When I was in Chennai in January this year, a chance-met Indian sports journalist, now long retired, still remembered dad. It was only when researching this tribute that I found out that dad had University colours in Cricket, Swimming and Boxing, and that he was also the captain of the University Boxing team and President of the Sports Council. Dad excelled even in his hobbies. His passion for jazz found expression through his volunteer work as a 'DJ' on Radio Ceylon and his presidency of the Jazz Club.

Medicine was not for dad, and he switched to Science, from which he graduated with honours. It was a matter of great regret to dad that he didn’t stick with Medicine, and the three of us grew up with that regret greatly influencing our own choice of careers. From University, dad when to Cambridge to do postgraduate study. It was while he was there that his parents marriage failed, and dad returned to Sri Lanka before finishing his studies. It was doubtless a time of great sorrow and anger for the boys, who in the days before no-fault divorces, could not have understood the complicated legal processes required. Dad felt abandoned. So much so, that I grew up thinking my grandmother was dead, and it was not until 1985 that we discovered that she was alive.

Dad’s first job was with Shell. He joked that his interview in London with a cricket-mad senior executive involved discussing field placements under different weather conditions on different pitches. After a particularly challenging combination of deteriorating wicket, poor light and a short run chase, dad was hired. In a newly independent Sri Lanka, striving to achieve rapid economic growth and feed its people, dad’s efforts were focussed on agricultural products, vital for a country with tea as its main export.

In 1958, dad met mum. He started as he meant to continue. Dad saw mum across a dance floor, and breaking every social convention of good Asian society, he walked up to her un-introduced and said “If you don’t dance with me, I’ll go off and put a paper bag over my head.” Forty-seven years later, he still thought mum was the most beautiful person he ever knew. Each birthday, mum was greeted with a dozen long-stem red roses.

Mum and dad were married on 17 June, 1961 at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Milagiriya. Dad had not been a regular churchgoer since leaving school. His faith at this point can only be described as tolerant indifference. The Trinity College of dad’s childhood had been very High Church Anglican, and the primacy of the bible as the reference for all Christian instruction had not been central to his education.
So dad would not have thought of Abraham, when he left Ur of the Chaldees to seek the promised land, as it became clear that Sri Lanka held no future for a young family - particularly for Tamils, living in Colombo. Race riots in the late 50s were a foretaste of what was to come later. An attempted coup in the early 1970s confirmed dad’s view: we had to leave.

And so dad made the second his second big move of his life. He decided to migrate. At first, the choice seemed obvious. He had an American friend in DuPont who was keen to sponsor him if he chose to migrate to the US. But wisely, dad felt that Australia held better prospects for his family. So here we came. I suppose if you were to define our status under the current Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs criteria, we would be classed as economic refugees. Then, as now, Australia was not keen to have economic refugees, so our application was refused. And then an amazing thing happened. The newly elected Whitlam Government changed Australia’s policies for migration. Our case was reviewed, and thanks to the intervention of some people whom I can only describe as angels in the truest sense of the word, we were accepted. My brother, sister and I immediately started to learn the names of the States, their capitals, their floral emblems, the strange names of the animals, towns and every piece of trivia we could about Australia. We ransacked the libraries and searched out our friend’s bookshelves for everything we could find.

Meanwhile, in the years between applying and being accepted, dad had reached the top of his profession in Sri Lanka. He was Managing Director of Lankem, Shell’s agricultural products subsidiary in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, in 1973, we became sojourners in a strange land - Queensland. A place where the municipal sanitation staff were called ‘Garbos’ and where more surprising still, they called you ‘mate’. Dad, at the age of 42, had to start again at the bottom of the corporate ladder, this time with an American company, DuPont. Well known in the US, but relatively unheard off in Australia.

He loved his work. He made some great friends, and if you talk to them, they’ll tell you some outrageous anecdotes about what it was like to work with dad. If I can paraphrase the words of one good friend, Jeff Campion, dad had the knack of identifying with people. He could walk into a room full of tension, and soon find something in common with everyone there. In no time at all, dad had won them over and the tension would evaporate.

Dad’s time with DuPont, from 1973 until his retirement in 1999, was very special to him. His work in America and South East Asia gave him the opportunity to make friends in many countries. This last few weeks, e-mails and cards have come from work colleagues the US, Spain, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan. I’m sure that as the news of his passing spreads, messages will arrive from other parts of the world. At a time when people who can cross cultural divides are few and far between, dad is being remembered this week in this Anglican service, in a Roman Catholic novena at Quezon City in the Philippines, and by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all with equal sorrow at his passing. If only there were more like him!
It was a particular gift of dad’s - this ability to make everyone feel like they were special. All of us felt like we were his particular favourite. My cousins each had a special relationship with dad too - he wasn’t impartial, but I suppose you would have to call it favouritism on an all encompassing scale - no-one was left out. For his grandchildren, dad was like an all-year father christmas. He could get instant good behaviour from them, and was equally capable of joining in some small mischief to their delight and everyone else’s exasperation.

Dad’s work took us all over the world. We lived in Brisbane, Singapore, the East Coast of the United States, and finally Sydney. Perhaps the moves made us a particularly close family. We came to rely more and more on each other. Our faith as Christians grew too - in countries like Sri Lanka and Singapore, where the dominant culture is not Christian, you are far more aware how different Christian values are to those of other religions. You become aware how little genuine Christianity is left in Western culture. How much we need to go back to basics. At first, dad was a sceptic. He was happy for mum and the rest of us to do as we wished, but wasn’t too keen on doing a lot himself. After all, he’d been baptised. He’d been to a Christian school, and saw to it that his children had received a similar education. He was a fairly good person. What more was there that he had to do?

Well, he needed to be healed of all the wrongs he felt he had suffered as a child. Seeing his mother and accepting that she wasn’t some terrible cruel person was an important part of that. As I said earlier, in 1985 we found out she was still alive, and we travelled to Greece and saw her. Later, she came to London, where dad saw more of her. For a short time, she lived with mum and dad in Singapore. In forgiving her for real and imagined wrongs, dad’s own emotional healing began.

Michael Stead saw dad in hospital last month and read John 14:1-7 out loud. The words of this beautiful promise are printed next to dad’s photo at the back of the church. Dad listed to Michael and said he believed, but he wasn’t one to talk about it. In a way, that one sentence said it all about dad. If you wanted to know what dad believed, then you had to look at how he lived his life. Dad’s life was an example of what Christian life should be. He loved his family and was willing to give up everything for us. He was a man of high moral principle, and stayed true to his values, even if it cost him. There are many who consider him to be a father figure, a role model, an example of how to be - yet he was so modest and humble that I had to find out about his achievements from others. If ever he boasted about anything, it was about us.

In the last twenty years, as part of this parish, there was a slow transformation in dad. His understanding of Christianity grew. He didn’t have a dramatic conversion, like I did, or like Paul on the road to Damascus - no single moment when he could say ‘at this point, I am saved’, but slowly, the solid, consistent preaching of the gospel from this pulpit brought dad to an assurance of his salvation. I saw him die with such peace, such dignity and such acceptance, that I am absolutely certain that dad is in heaven.

And so, when I came to write this tribute, I came to think about the things that dad has taught us, not through words, but through his life and actions.

1. Consistent from my very earliest memories right through to last week - hug those you love often.

2. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.

3. Be frugal in your needs, and generous in your giving.

4. Death holds no terror for a righteous man.

5. Human dignity has nothing to do with hospital gowns that show your bum, or tubes up your nose.

6. Finally, life is to be enjoyed. It is too short for low-fat, sugar-free, salt-reduced and high-fibre. Those things won’t make you live longer - it will just feel that way.

So to me, dad is still ten feet tall. He is still my hero. I will live in his shadow and hope that one day, I will grow tall enough to see all he saw.

Rohan Titus
Telephone: + 94 11 259 9316
9/3 Queen's Court
Mobile: + 94 77 697 5693
22 Queen's Road E-mail:
Colombo 3 Homepage:
Sri Lanka


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home