“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” Proverbs 31:10
“Anything worth having is worth waiting for”
“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.”
Who would ever find a lady like Neela Liyanage? Elegantly dressed, well-groomed and immaculately manicured. Kindness personified her and that was her key characteristic – everybody commented on this quality. What else characterised her? She never spoke disparagingly about anyone nor did she ever encourage such talk. Her total honesty and probity in all dealings were another aspect of her persona. What a collection of admirable and lovable features in one individual!
She was not born into nor did she inherit riches. When she lost her father when she was only eighteen, she had to give up all thought of higher education; left school (Visakha) to start employment, support her two younger siblings through school and also her mother who as a housewife had never been out to work. Her dad, as the Superintendent of Hydraulic Laboratory in the Irrigation Department, was living in a rented government house in Gregory’s Avenue. Pursuing one of his interests, he had pioneered colour photography, doing his own colour-printing back in the 1950s; his other passion was as a radio ham.
So, what a start for this young girl who straight out of school had to look for a place for the family to live in and then go out to work as the breadwinner. In 1961, when bus fare for one-stage (e.g. Wellawatte to Bambalapitiya) was a mere five cents, she would get off the bus and walk the length of two halts to save that money. She travelled daily from Ratmalana to Kollupitiya by bus, with a one-mile walk from home to the bus stop. That was how she cut her teeth and boy did it not develop her for later life!
Her first job was at Cement Corporation where the chairman, a good old-fashioned senior civil servant, recognised her talents and capabilities and guided her early career development. In some ways, he was a surrogate father.
She was later chosen to work for the United Nations in Colombo. Such was her rapid development and strength of character. She took herself off alone to Sierra Leone where she continued to work in the UN Development Programme and served two terms there.
On her return, she married Peter “Suresh” Samuel who then headed one of the best-known engineering companies in Sri Lanka. In later years, after the untimely death of her husband, she served the eponymous PLC as Co-Chairman and Managing Director. The company ran into problems, mainly because of unpaid bills from government contracts amounting to tens of millions of rupees. Her misfortune (though she never regarded it as such) did not end. A Sri Lankan entrepreneur from Australia “bought” the company for Rs.20 million. To “develop” the company, he borrowed more than the full amount back from her, but reneged on the repayment – she had to pay back the bank the full amount! She had never breathed a word of this to anyone. Her faith was such that she trusted the Lord in all aspects of life and the Lord never failed her.
Some 35 years ago, she founded a greetings card company. It was under licence Gibson Greetings of USA; the carefully crafted, catchy company name Uthum Pathum, her brainchild, created a niche market for high-quality greetings cards. Her mission was to give thanks to the Lord for all His blessing and comforts bestowed on her to support the local community and to provide employment for at least a moderate number of people. This company, of which she was Chairperson and Managing Director since its founding, was her life’s work and devotion.
Uthum Pathum became inextricably linked with and as well-known as her own professional name - Shanthie Samuel. Uthum Pathum has been producing quality greetings cards which they have exhibited by invitation even in the US. Uthum Pathum has grown from strength to strength. It also designs an exclusive range of wrapping paper and gift bags.
Since 1994, it exclusively represents in Sri Lanka, Archies Limited India which is in the business of designing, manufacturing and selling greetings cards and other social expression products such as gifts and posters. Archies is believed to have a share of about 50% of India’s greetings cards market and is the sole agent for Hallmark, Ambassador and Paper Rose in India. She travelled the world to establish brand names like Gibson, Hallmark and Archies in this country. Her legacy is the multiple-store organisation where she personally led the team in designing, printing, marketing and selling quality cards. It ventured into the field of gifts alongside the cards. One of her passions which she never lost was to develop young artists; through them, she was closely involved in the painting and production of hundreds of original greetings cards with a Sri Lankan theme.
Her world changed in 2015. After a lapse of some 54 years when she had absolutely no contact with her teenage sweetheart – no postcards, no phone calls, no emails and no messages whatsoever – she unexpectedly met Sunil Liyanage, her former neighbour from Gregory’s Avenue. They had dated each other with total and exclusive commitment for over four years until their lives took different paths. He later qualified as a doctor in 1965, migrated to the UK where he was a consultant and also a medical director. Having been widowed, after his retirement, and on one of his few short trips to Sri Lanka, Neela and Sunil met. If ever the cliché “love at first sight” became a reality, this was it. Nothing ever happens by chance… this was God’s plan for them. Instantly, they became inseparable, married in 2016 and lived “happily ever after.” In a sense, they cut themselves off from the busy social life, so that every moment was exclusively for each other.
Neela had Victorian values – the thought of her husband lifting a finger to do any housework or grocery shopping was abhorrent, but the Lord works in mysterious ways; Sunil saw to her every need particularly during her illness which was associated with intense tiredness. It now transpires that she had told all her family and friends how blissfully happy she was and that he looked after her like a baby!
Although she was diagnosed with advanced cancer two years ago, the two of them committed themselves to each other, breathed not a word of the diagnosis to any other. She received treatment in Singapore and in the UK. Neela remained positive and cheerful, deeply engaged in her greetings card business and forever praising and thanking the Lord for His love and benefits. Never did the thought of “why me” ever cross her mind. She found comfort in the Lord and the faith of one spouse was strengthened by the other.
Neela was part of a small prayer group of five ladies who met regularly, predominantly to pray for Sri Lanka. Ladies of varied backgrounds, four of them widowed, but with one common goal, to seek divine guidance, help and blessing for their beloved country. Every aspect of prosperity and future development of the country was included in their prayer list. To this day, they meet prayerfully, but through illness and avoidance of groups of people, Neela has been with the group in spirit but not in person.
She had a symbiotic relationship with Prophet Jerome’s King’s Revival Church. As she had been medically advised to avoid crowded places for fear of infection, she could not attend church; she had comfort in livestream broadcast of several Sunday services, healing services during the week and watched his YouTube collection for hours on end.
Her recently widowed sister lives in the Netherlands while her brother and his wife are in the US. She doted on her two nephews and her niece. Sunil’s two sons in the UK and two grandchildren were devoted to her as was his only surviving brother and his wife living in England.
Neela’s and Sunil’s early love, then total lack of contact for five decades, followed by a “chance” meeting leading to instant and intense love and a life together is a theme for a movie.
She is safe in the arms of Jesus. Sunil and Neela will surely be reunited, never to part again!