A distinguished engineer, Dr Ken Michael AC is better known for his tireless contribution to many aspects of government, business and community work in WA, spanning more than 40 years.
Kenneth Comninos Michael was born in Perth in 1938, the son of migrants from Castellorizo. His father Agapitos arrived in Australia in the 1890s as a young boy, and was naturalised in 1905, soon after Federation. As one of the few Greeks in Australia at the turn of the century, (around one thousand), Agapitos adopted his new country unreservedly.
As the First World War began, ‘Soldier Jack Agapitos’ volunteered to serve with the 11th Battalion AIF. He was posted to the Western Front and would be one of the many Allied troops who were gassed in that terrible campaign. He came home ‘TPI’, Totally and Permanently Incapacitated. Dr Michael’s mother, Pangiota, also from Castellorizo, was nearly 30 years younger than Agapitos.
She arrived in the mid-1930s and they married soon after. But their life together would be short. In 1946, at 63 years of age, Soldier Jack Agapitos died. Ken Michael was eight years old. The recollections Dr Michael has of his father are understandably limited, but he remembers, “a kind man, a family man. I have a memory of going to the zoo with him. He was very proud of his family.”
I ask Dr Michael, one of eight children, how his family coped at this very difficult time. “Mum was a good manager and taught us good values. We became ‘Legacy’ wards, looked after by the Repatriation Department, today it’s the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We used to get a Christmas present every year through Legacy. Somehow they knew I liked Meccano sets.
I used to build cranes and bridges, not realising that one day this would be a major part of my life.” It would be at an Hellenic Youth Association barbecue, in December 1957, that Ken Michael first met his wife Julie, whose parents were from Castellorizo and Smyrni. Julie Michael, also born in Perth in 1938, was the daughter of Con Kalaf, who had run a business in the city. “It was a very long courtship, an old-fashioned courtship,” says Dr Michael. “We both had widowed mothers, so there were very similar circumstances between us”.
They married in 1964, and soon after, moved to London, where the young bridge designer had been awarded a scholarship to complete a PhD in Engineering, at Imperial College.
Though opportunities beckoned to stay in Britain, after three years they returned to Australia, where Dr Michael’s career as a designer and engineer for WA Main Roads Department would span the next 30 years, and widen to include road design, construction and management. In 1997, he retired from the public service to start his own consulting engineering and management practice, though he continued to offer his wealth of experience and management skills to regulatory bodies for WA’s gas and rail infrastructure.
Wanting to know more about what has motivated him throughout his professional life, Dr Michael traces a line directly to his ancestral roots. “My mother said ‘whatever you do, don’t discredit your name.’ That was impressed upon me from a very early age,” says WA’s Governor. “Those values, those connections to the past have given me the framework in which I’ve worked. The first question one must ask is, ‘is it the truth?
That integrity aspect is fundamental. The other important word is respect. Respect of others and what they do, no matter where they fit in our complex world.” Faith has also been central to Dr Michael’s life. “Both myself and Julie were brought up in a very strong Greek Orthodox tradition. Our faith is our strength.”
That strength is once again being sorely tested. Very recently, news of Mrs Michael’s ongoing battle with cancer, after first being diagnosed ten years ago, has become public. The Governor’s decision to retire from his vice-regal post, which could possibly have been extended, has been made also to ensure he can be at his wife’s side.
Speaking to WA’s The Sunday Times in recent weeks, Dr Michael said that he felt it was the right time to go. “We’re unsure what the future holds, so we felt we needed to make an early move.
This will be her fifth round of chemo in ten years and having to watch her go through that, that’s the hard part. But she’s got a fantastic attitude. She’s never used it as an excuse for anything.” Mrs Michael spoke about the effects on her husband as they meet the challenge together. “I can see the sadness on his face,” she said.
“That breaks my heart because I know he’s suffering more than I am. That has been the most difficult thing,” confides Mrs Michael. “I’ve spent my life being Ken’s support, whatever he’s done I’ve been there for him and I’ve been happy that way.
I think we’ve done more than we needed to but we find it hard to say ‘no’. We were so privileged to be in this position we wanted to give it our all.” Inducted last month as one of WA’s 100 most courageous and inspiring women, Mrs
Michael hopes her experience with cancer will make others more aware of the disease. As this article goes to press, His Excellency and Mrs Michael are preparing to leave Government House and return to their home in South Perth. “We’re ready,” says WA’s much loved and respected Governor, as our conversation comes to its conclusion.
“Julie has been preparing the house. We may have some personal challenges, but so do others. She’s a very strong woman.” No doubt Western Australia’s 30th Governor and his wife will meet their latest challenge with the fortitude, strength and dignity that has always been a hallmark of their lives and lineage.