OAM for long-time Horsham Wimmera River Improvement Committee chairman Gary Aitken
By DEAN LAWSON
A life-long dedication to the environment and community has provided Horsham’s Gary Aitken with a Queen’s Birthday Honour.
Mr Aitken, 83, who for decades has worked to strengthen the bond between Wimmera and southern Mallee people and the Wimmera River catchment, has become a Member of the Order of Australia.
Mr Aitken has been a part of Wimmera River Improvement Committee for 20 years, where he has been able to promote his passion for the river environment and the role it can play in community health.
He said his award took him by surprise.
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“It’s hard to put into words, except that I feel very humbled by it,” he said.
“Honestly, words fail me. You don’t go through life seeking these things and volunteering is just everything for people like us in the bush.”
Mr Aitken, who with his wife Beverley have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, developed his interest in the environment as a youngster growing up on the edge of Lake Lascelles at Hopetoun.
He said a shortage of room in the family home meant he spent nights on a back verandah that faced onto the lake.
“I grew up with birds, the frogs, the night birds – that’s where my interest started,” he said.
“My playground was all things natural and it grew on me from there.”
But Mr Aitken’s association with the land had already been ingrained into his genes.
His grandfather arrived in the Mallee as a chauffeur for early developers, who would have been involved in the early days of the Wimmera-Mallee channel system, and his father had also been deeply involved in water-system connection.
Mr Aitken became a mechanic after leaving school and as a volunteer joined the fire brigade.
And, as ‘par for the course’ put up his hand to help with Hopetoun Bush Nursing Hospital, where he took charge of lighting and helped establish an automatic power system.
The Aitkens then bought a farm at Tarranyurk, where they spent many years and where Mr Aitken fostered his passion for an early version of Landcare, while also getting involved in community activities.
“When we eventually developed at Tarranyurk, it was the early days of a river strategy, before the days of the catchment management authority, and I represented the northern region system,” he said.
“That connection took me to Canberra and Murray Darling Basin discussions.
“Because of my total interest in it, I was delighted. I thought it was fantastic to go to Canberra with blokes like Barry Clugston.”
Mr Aitken’s planning involvement led to him being part of a Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline Project Reference Group, which steered the way for one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Victorian history.
“When we eventually came to Horsham, there was no way Bev was not going to live anywhere near the river, so we bought a block of land close to wetlands near the weir,” he said.
“It was a bare paddock at the time, you wouldn’t recognise it now.”
Mr Aitken continued to pursue his interest in the river environment and how to shape it for the health of the community.
His history of service shows him as a long-time member of Wimmera River improvement and Horsham Tidy Towns committees and he is also an Horsham Urban Landcare Group member.
He has played a key role in establishing many of the river walking and cycling tracks people are using.
His OAM is the latest in a growing collection of significant accolades, following his Keep Victoria Beautiful Dame Phyllis Frost Award from last year.
Mr Aitken’s daughter Lyn, in Mackay, and son Roger, in Darwin, called on Monday, offering congratulations on his latest award.
Mr Aitken said the greatest appreciation anyone could have was to see people benefitting from work projects.
He also encouraged people to ‘slow down and have a look around’.
“The world is spinning too fast. People should take time out to sit and listen to what our river has to offer,” he said.
Mr Aitken’s list of achievements –
Wimmera River Improvement Committee
• Chairman, current.
• Member, 20 years.
Horsham Tidy Towns Committee
• Member, since 2013.
Wimmera Growers of Native Plants Association-Wimmera Growers of Australian Plants
• Past president.
Horsham Uniting Church
• Retired elder.
• Member, Horsham Urban Landcare Group.
• Former committee member, Wimmera Mallee Pipeline Project Reference Group.
• Former member, The Grampians to Little Desert Biolink Strategy Group.
Awards and recognition
• Horsham Rural City Council Citizen of the Year, 2010.
• The Victorian Government Certificate of Appreciation, 2001.
• Dame Phyllis Frost Award, Keep Victoria Beautiful, 2019.