Bob the builder's honour leaves him tickled pink

Robert Whittaker, AM, at the Apprentices Arch bridge which he designed. It runs between Leura and Katoomba.
Robert Whittaker, AM, at the Apprentices Arch bridge which he designed. It runs between Leura and Katoomba.

He calls himself "just a crotchety old builder" but Katoomba's Adjunct Professor Robert Whittaker is also the Mountains' latest member of the Order of Australia.

"I really don't understand this," he said. "I am tickled pink. But it struck me as bizarre that this sort of thing gets rewarded."

"This sort of thing" is a career in the building industry, including roles as president or chairman of many industry bodies, plus more than 20 years teaching.

Mr Whittaker, who has a building degree ("not engineering, not architecture, pure building," he said proudly), is currently the national president of the Australian Institute of Building, having previously served as senior vice-president for eight years. He has also chaired the National Education Committee and the NSW Chapter Education Committee.

Most of his early working life was spent in private industry but it was his move to teaching 20 years ago that proved life-changing, he said.

"I find teaching extremely rewarding and satisfying. To have the privilege of teaching in your own discipline - nothing could be finer. It's simply marvellous."

Mr Whittaker has been with TAFE for two decades, lecturing in building and construction at the Western Sydney Institute.

He is also adjunct professor at both the University of Western Sydney and University of Canberra. He is a member of industry advisory boards at Sydney University, the University of Newcastle and the University of Western Sydney. He is also a former lecturer in professional ethics at the University of NSW and in the history of building technology at Western Sydney.

Mr Whittaker was raised in Bankstown but bought a block of land in Katoomba in the late 1980s, shortly before he married. He then built the home where he and wife Susan have raised their two daughters.

He also designed the so-called Apprentices Arch bridge which links a pedestrian walkway between Katoomba and Leura, just beyond his backyard at the end of Wilson Street.

"The old bridge was made of sleepers, which had holes in them, a couple of telegraph poles and just one handrail," Mr Whittaker said.

"I didn't mind the romance of it but it was going to have to be replaced one day. So I designed its replacement."

He enlisted the help of fellow TAFE teachers, Ted Alderson and Michael Landers from Miller TAFE, who engaged their stonemasonry students, notably Stuart Briggs and Graham Wilson, who carved the two main keystones. The stone was donated by the Department of Public Works and Blue Mountains City Council engaged a contractor to put it all together.

It is a quaint little brick and stone arch bridge spanning one of the creeks that leads into Leura Cascades and Mr Whittaker still gets a thrill when tourists stop to photograph it.

He said news of his AM, while very welcome, had come as a total surprise.

"I am completely taken aback by this," he said. "I keep on thinking they will realise they've made a terrible mistake and change their minds. I can think of many more deserving people."


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