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Two suitcases and one man

Life is a game and this – working and studying – is my way of playing it, Kalevi Hyyrynen used to say. The Aalto alumnus, who remembered his alma mater generously in his will, was keen on learning new things throughout his life.
Kuvassa Kalevi Hyyrynen, kuva: Hyyrysen kotialbumi
On the wall behind Kalevi Hyyrynen is a ryijy tapestry made by a local artisan woman in nearby Luumäki. His mother commissioned one of these traditional Finnish wall decorations for each of her sons.

The phone call from the United States came in the summer of 1970. His would-be employer was wondering why Kalevi Hyyrynen wasn’t at work. He discovered that the necessary work permit had been forgotten on the desk of the authorities for quite some time, leaving Hyyrynen just one week to sell his car, radio and other possessions before taking off. Hyyrynen, a product of the small South Karelian village of Taavetti, packed two suitcases and went out into the world.   

There was no money for a taxi, so Hyyrynen himself schlepped his luggage through New York to the bus terminal. Little did he know that, later in life, he’d be packing suitcases full of silver coins to bring back.

Interested in technology and electricity

Kalevi Hyyrynen was the second-oldest son of a family with four children. As a child, he skied, played soccer and built things. His hands we’re always working on some project. A soapbox turned into a functioning radio and building waste into a hut. Hyyrynen also built a crystal set, i.e. a simple radio receiver.      

In 1962, Hyyrynen received a much-expected letter at home in Taavetti. Applying for a place at the Helsinki University of Technology had been a natural choice for a young man with his interests. From shared student accommodation in Otaniemi, life took him to various summer jobs at power plants around Finland. In between, he’d make short visits home to fix his car. He completed his thesis work as an employee of Oy Strömberg Ab in Vaasa.

Despite every effort, he could not land a permanent job. One rejection letter after another popped in the mailbox, always citing lack of experience as the reason. But Hyyrynen refused to give up, and instead started thinking about options. As a student, he’d gotten to know Finns who had moved to the United States. What if I go there for a while and build up some professional experience, he thought.   

His original idea had been to stay at the nuclear plant for a few years at most, but as time passed, Hyyrynen forgot about returning to Finland. The house he bought in the state of Massachusetts became his home for the rest of his life.

Kalevi Hyyrynen Yancee Hockey Team
Kalevi Hyyrynen played ice hockey with his workmates, usually settling into a defender role.

Soccer and ice hockey

He settled into life in his new homeland. His job made him responsible for the electrical planning design of alteration works carried out at power plants belonging to the Yankee Atomic Electric Company. He also completed a Master’s in electrical engineering at the local Worcester Polytechnic Institute alongside his professional duties. 

Hyyrynen, known to his American friends as Kal, was not the chatty type. According to his workmate, he was not, however, shy about airing his opinion whenever an issue related to his area of expertise was being discussed. Politics and sports were other topics he was comfortable talking about.  

He is remembered as a friendly, hard-working and diligent employee, who’d hop into his red Chevy Corvette and drive to the job site when required. Hyyrynen wanted to ensure that all the details of the design and installation were carried out to a T. That car was his pride and joy, and he’d use it to take his visiting nephews for a spin – but no one else was allowed to drive it.  

Although Hyyrynen wasn’t much of a talker, he was not reclusive by nature. Whenever a group would gather to play on a nearby soccer field, Hyyrynen would join in, even though he knew none of the other players. He also played tennis as well as ice hockey with his workmates, usually settling into a defender role.

Apartments and investing

Growing up in humble surroundings during wartime made Kalevi Hyyrynen very careful about spending money. He’d pick the herring tin with the lowest price per kilo and he never moved from the first house he bought for himself. Its furniture was mismatched, but a stuffed blue marlin hanging on the wall did reveal that the house’s occupant had once splurged on a fishing trip. He enjoyed fixing up and upgrading his hillside home, and even built a sauna there.    

In addition to his house, Hyyrynen bought other apartments, which he, a skilled handyman, maintained in excellent condition. He never advertised his possessions. His workmate recalls once visiting a friend who lived nearby, and to his surprise seeing Kal there. Hyyrynen had come to clear the snow out of the year in his role as landlord-caretaker. They shared a good laugh about it the following day at the office. 

Hyyrynen is remembered for his wry sense of humour. Once, he had come over to his nephew’s to fix the lawnmower. As he was putting on his bargain-basement sneakers, he remarked that he was likely the only person ever to have gone to see the Vienna Philharmonic wearing trainers.   

Hyyrynen spoke English with such a strong Finnish accent that he could be hard to understand. He was often asked to repeat what he had just said, which was quite frustrating for such a reticent person. In time, however, his English proficiency strengthened and he started to forget some Finnish words. He enjoyed spending time at the family cottage when holidaying back home, and would pass the time by tinkering and solving crossword puzzles. He’d frequently have to ask what some word was in Finnish.

Kalevi Hyyrynen, kuva: Luumäen Lehti/Juhani Partanen
In summer time Kalevi Hyyrynen visited Finland. Photo: Luumäen Lehti/Juhani Partanen.

Learning and coins

In his free time, Kalevi Hyyrynen liked to read and absorb fresh knowledge. He always wanted to know all the details before reaching a decision. Upon reaching retirement, he studied the workings of the stock market for a year before making his first investment. He became a savvy investor, who’d retire to his parent’s attic to pore over market data on his laptop when holidaying in Finland.   

Hyyrynen learned to read sheet music as an adult after he’d joined the local church choir. This hobby came as quite a surprise to his family because, as a child, he had refused to sing a carol to Santa Claus even though receipt of his Christmas presents hinged on doing so.

But he was a gifted investor, and his fortune grew. A few years back, Hyyrynen came to visit Finland. This time, his luggage contained a bit more than a packed lunch – he’d come with a suitcase full of silver coins, which Hyyrynen stashed in his brother’s house. In time, the brother died and the house had to be vacated, but Hyyrynen, whose health was by now deteriorating, couldn’t articulate where his coins were hidden. He was able to give enough clues to direct the family to the attic, where they discovered a large haul. Fortunately, they also decided to search the rest of the house, as the metal detector beeped again in the fireplace room. Concealed in the sofa fillings were more of their American uncle’s surprises.     

Hyyrynen valued education and learning. If I had sons, I’d send them to the university, he used to say. He did his best to teach his nephews mathematics and also brought them university brochures to read. His high regard for education, especially the teaching of technology, is evidenced by his decision to remember his former seat of learning Aalto University, the successor of the Helsinki University of Technology, in his will.

Kalevi Hyyrynen's brother Esa Hyyrynen, nephew Kimmo Hyyrynen and former workmate Richard Turcotte were interviewed for this article.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.

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