Micky leaves remarkable legacy

November 09, 2017

Michael Anthony Ashford. 1960-2017.

I KNOW you – it was as infectious as it was endearing.

And it was a greeting so familiar to so many who live in the twin towns.

Michael Ashford (pictured) was always going to be a character – his birth foreshadowed by a shooting star that lit the night sky and was watched by his father Neville.

Yet this affable individual was to suffer unseen pain and distress and then secure a groundbreaking place in Australian jurisprudence between his birth and his arrival in Echuca-Moama.

Sixty-plus years ago, a diagnosis of Down syndrome was often a sentence to an institutionalised existence – and that was the option given to Michael’s family.

But they would not hear of it and instead brought their new baby son and brother home, raising him as an equal in their family and community.

Michael attended Coburg Special School and became a weekly resident at Churinga, an operation of the Brothers of the Order of St John of God.

As a young man, Michael moved to Yarraview where he thrived and delighted in his work as a nurseryman.

A lifelong Bombers’ tragic, he loved watching the football and idolised Kevin Sheedy.

Ever the life of his family – which was growing all the time – he loved being surrounded by his brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews for whom he regularly performed his Elvis impersonation.

And was just as happy to reprise it for anyone else he could convert to an impromptu audience.

Sadly his father Neville died in 1980 but a few years later his mother Irene married Bill, a man with whom Michael formed a very close and loving relationship that lasted until Bill’s death in 2002.

A loss compounded by the discovery that for years Michael had been abused at the hands of the Brothers of the Order of St John of God.

The distraught family brought him home, and as the full details and extent of his abuse became better understood, his family took on the Order and received the first out-of-court settlement of its kind against the Catholic church in Australia.

‘‘It was all gone, no more,’’ a relieved Michael told his family.

‘‘He paved the way in highlighting the abuse of people with intellectual disabilities,’’ his sister Aileen said.

In a bid to put as much of the past as possible behind him, Michael and his mother moved to Echuca-Moama to be close to his sister Marie and her family.

Once here, Michael flourished and expanded his horizons even further when he joined the Murray Human Services (MHS) family and regularly took part in a variety of activities.

He became the first person with a disability to make his debut and was also a regular at lawn bowls, the movies, swimming and cruising on the paddlesteamers.

MHS support worker Sarah Cooper worked with Michael for more than three years and even though his health deteriorated in the past year, she had only positive things to say.

‘‘Michael was a big part of my life, now there’s a hole in my heart,’’ Sarah said.

His companion and friend during many MHS outings, including trips to Rosco’s Farm, down to the port area for a coffee to the High St South MHS facility, Sarah recalled many happy times.

‘‘Everyone said hello to him, he just loved hearing familiar voices,’’ she said.

‘‘We formed a great friendship.’’

About 2013, Michael began to show signs of dementia so he moved to Bupa with his mother to receive the proper care and support, but sadly Irene died not long after they settled in.

True to his character, Michael continued to go out into the community, always armed with his aura of happiness.

MHS leader Jo Allen said she also had the pleasure of working with Michael.

‘‘He lit up any room,’’ she smiled.

‘‘His infectious happiness would flow on to anyone and he was truly a pleasure to work with.

‘‘He always had a great outlook on life and was always laughing.’’

Michael’s life could have been one defined by sadness and insurmountable challenges, yet he rose above it all to not just triumph but to live a cheerful, loving and beautiful life.

The legacy this remarkable individual has left us holds significant lessons from which we can all learn.

‘‘He met every day with his bubbly and positive spirit. He never judged, he never blamed and he had a perpetual smile on his face,’’ Aileen said fondly.

‘‘A lesson for us all.

‘‘Micky was no exception – trying anything, being accepted by everyone, weaving his magic on all who crossed his path.

‘‘His spirit will continue as the values that he has demonstrated — the ability to see the best in people, to not let his disability define him, to give unconditional love and never blame others — will never be lost.’’

Michael died on August 29, having spent his last week in the company of his adoring family.

A special memorial will be held at Murray Human Services on Thursday.

Michael’s family warmly invites everyone to watch the video of his funeral, listen to a few friends speak and enjoy an afternoon tea in the celebration of a wonderful life.

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