HE DESCRIBES himself as a Mallee boy, and now his lifelong love of environment and community has earned Gary Aitken one of the country's highest accolades.
Mr Aitken has received the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community of the Wimmera in the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honours list.
He has fond memories of growing up in Hopetoun.
"We had a three-bedroom house and in those days, the boy of the house was often shifted out onto the verandah," he said.
"I went to sleep listening to the frogs and bird sounds. I used to snuggle down, and I got used to listening to them. I felt they were my friends."
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Mr Aitken spent much of his childhood playing around Lake Lascelles, observing the wildlife.
He says his mother was a dominant force in his upbringing.
"I would ask her, how do I know if I'm doing the right thing? She would tell me there was a little boy inside me who knew what was right and what was wrong. She taught me to always try and do the right thing," he said.
As a young teenager Mr Aitken followed his father's lead by joining the fire brigade.
This was to the start of a lifetime of community service across a variety of different organisations.
"That's the way in small places - whatever job's going, you just have to be involved in it," Mr Aitken said.
As a young man he worked as a farm labourer and shearer, and went on to earn his pilot's licence through a national service program.
"We didn't have an aerodrome, it was just a paddock. There were all sorts of conflicts going on around the world and they needed people to learn how to fly aeroplanes, so you could apply to get flying lessons. I learnt to fly in a Tiger Moth," he said.
"As the years went on I had my own aeroplanes. By then I'd gotten away from Hopetoun, married a farmer's daughter and become a farmer. We eventually bought our own farm at Tarranyurk."
Mr Aitken moved with wife Beverley to Horsham in 2000, and his involvement with the Wimmera River Improvement Committee began.
"I was interested in environmental things and we had the Wimmera River running through our property," he said.
"It was back in the very early stages of Landcare in those days."
The connections made with this group have been long lasting and meaningful for Mr Aitken, who is now chairman.
"We have a working bee every Wednesday morning at the river, and if ever there was a men's shed without being in a shed, this is it," he said.
"The core of the membership has been there for years. It's been a great involvement. We are out there planting trees, building shelters and bridges and maintaining the walking track around the wetlands."
Mr Aitken is also a member of the Horsham Urban Landcare Group.
He said it had been rewarding during the COVID-19 shutdown to see so many parents out with their children walking and on bikes, enjoying time together in nature.
"I always recommend the best form of meditation is to get out and sit and listen to nature, and just slow down," he said.
"The world's going at a heck of a rate, everyone does everything so fast."
Other areas of community service include as a Horsham Tidy Towns committee member, a past president and current member of the Wimmera Growers of Native Plants Association and Wimmera Growers of Australian Plants, and a retired elder of the Horsham Uniting Church.
Mr Aitken is also a former member of the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline Project Reference Group committee and the Grampians to Little Desert Biolink Strategy Group.
He was the Horsham Rural City Council Citizen of the Year in 2010 and received a Victorian Government Certificate of Appreciation in 2001 and a Dame Phyllis Frost Award through Keep Victoria Beautiful last year.
Despite these numerous endeavours and achievements, the 83-year-old said news of his OAM came as a big shock.
"I'm not a tall person, I'm only 5 feet, 7 inches. But when I heard about it, I felt like a grain of sand," Mr Aitken said.
"I was more than surprised. You can't help but feel humbled. You don't ever do anything in your life just by yourself, and my dear wife Beverley and I have just celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary."
The couple has a son in Darwin and a daughter in Queensland, so will have a quiet celebration to mark the OAM.
It's a prestigious award that's not bad for a Mallee boy who still credits his mum for making sure he went to Sunday school.
"I think the world would be a much better place if people lived by the 10 commandments," Mr Aitken said.
"And the Mallee people, they are just gorgeous people."
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