Former Warrnambool lawyer Don Aitken has been honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia after more than 50 years serving the south-west community through charitable organisations.
While Mr Aitken and his wife Jan returned to their home town of Melbourne a decade ago, they raised a family and spent much of their lives in Warrnambool and Port Fairy, where Mr Aitken played a key role establishing charitable trusts and educational institutions.
He has been on the board of the Ray and Joyce Uebergang Foundation for more than 30 years, and the A and H Graham Foundation since 2006, while he spent more than 20 years on the H.V. McKay Charitable Trust committee, including 12 years as chairman.
Mr Aitken was also a founding council member and chairman of the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education, helping to bring tertiary education to the region. But despite his lengthy resume, he said he was humbled with the honour.
"I'm a bit embarrassed, to be frank," he said.
"There are so many people I've worked closely with over the years who deserve recognition, who have done more than me, really."
Mr Aitken said he fell into charitable work early in his career as a solicitor for Taits Legal. "As a lawyer you get to know some people very well, and some of them have quite a lot of money but don't have anyone to leave it to," he said.
"So you can talk to them about setting up a charitable trust, and quite a number of the clients very readily accepted the opportunity."
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Mr Aitken said Warrnambool had an incredible number of trusts for a community its size. "As I understand it in Warrnambool now there are 16 charitable trusts, which is very unusual," he said.
"I think those trusts put about $1 million into the local community each year, it's extraordinary."
He said some standout projects he helped shepherd at the Uebergang Foundation were the skate park at Lady Bay and a second hockey pitch at Albert Park, which has put the Warrnambool and District Hockey Association in the running to host Commonwealth Games warm ups and practice matches.
"When we funded that skate park at Lady Bay it was such a hit that the council has since extended it twice," Mr Aitken said.
The foundation also funds 15 scholarships for Deakin University students at the Sherwood Park campus, which only exists because of the work of Mr Aitken and a handful of others in the 1960s.
"We formed a committee with some people from the Warrnambool Tech School in 1966 with the idea to become a member of the Victorian Institute of Colleges," he said. "We were trying to find a way to stop the drain of people to Melbourne and Geelong for education."
The Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education gained accreditation in December 1969, bringing courses like marine biology, engineering and art to a town of just 10,000 people.
"I was the first chairman and when I left the board eight years later there were about 1000 full time equivalent students," he said.
Mr Aitken also oversaw the purchase and development of the Sherwood Park site as enrolments grew at the original Timor Street location. The institute merged with Deakin in 1990, cementing Warrnambool's status as the western district's education hub. "It was a very exciting project to be involved in," he said.
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