Life can seem daunting, but there is always a way forward. That was Walter Mikac’s inspirational message when he shared his journey and discussed resilience and dealing with difficult challenges at Ivanhoe Grammar School’s 2017 Principal’s breakfast.
Walter revealed that one of his first lessons in resilience came while growing up in Rosanna, listening to Carlton overturn a 44-point half time deficit to beat Collingwood in the 1970 VFL Grand Final. The eight-year-old Blues fan never gave up on his team, which won by 10 points, and learned that the most difficult situations could be overcome. “I couldn’t stop pinching myself,” he said.
While at Rosanna East High School (now Viewbank College), where he played football against Ivanhoe Grammar School, Walter overcome a fear of being unable to sing to audition for Jesus Christ Superstar. He made the chorus and scored a major role the following year, which he said would not have happened if he didn’t give it a go. “It was fantastic,” he said. “It really opened my eyes to how much I enjoyed that.”
Walter said such experiences had taught him that developing resilience involved overcoming self-limiting beliefs and fears while demonstrating faith, hope and positive energy amid inevitable change. He drew on all of this and more after losing his wife and daughters, Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3, in the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
Walter was living in Tasmania and running a pharmacy near Port Arthur when tragedy struck. After the initial shock, he channelled his energy into positive change and wrote to then Prime Minister, John Howard, about the need for tighter gun laws. This helped Mr Howard pass sweeping reforms that made Australian safer.
In 1997, Walter became founding Patron of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which works to keep children safe from violence. The Foundation’s key objectives are to care for children who have experienced or witnessed serious violence, reduce bullying and other cyber risks and advocate for child safety and wellbeing. Its programs, which are in many schools and public libraries, include Better Buddies and an eSmart Digital Licence for primary students.
Walter said life was full of challenges and change. How we responded was crucial. In his case, he has always sought positives and refused to give up. Underlining this, Walter and his daughter Isabella, now 15, walked the Kokoda Track in 2015. “It was probably the most gruelling but also the most rewarding thing that I’ve done,” he said.
Walter’s views on perspective also resonated with students, staff and parents alike. Student Tess Carolan noted that Walter's "day-to-day approach to resilience that was born from tragedy is something that is so inspiring as it can be translated into things that occur in our life even if they may be significantly smaller." He told them that he was now more measured, appreciated what he had and tried not to sweat the small stuff. He was also unafraid to try new things and said others should do the same. “People avoid doing a particular thing because they’re scared that they’re going to fail,” he said. “I would say, have a go at it."