Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre.
Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre. Credit Hobart Mercury

Port Arthur massacre dad's story of hope

WALTER Mikac has endured more pain than most people could imagine and if anyone has a right to be angry with the world, it is him.

But anger seemed to be the last thing on his mind when he spoke to a journalist from our sister paper The Mercury in Hobart, 21 years after the horrific event in which he lost his family.

To hear the name Walter Mikac, now 55, is to recall images of a grief-shattered father leaving a memorial service for his wife and two young daughters, who were murdered in the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

Mikac's wife, Nanette, and daughters Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3, were shot and killed, seconds after Nanette pleaded with the gunman not to hurt her babies.

The pictures of this devastated man, clutching three irises and wearing his daughters' hairbands on his wrists, his face contorted with grief, encapsulated just a fraction of the heartache and disbelief that followed the mass shooting, which claimed 35 lives at the Tasmanian historic site.

Mikac, who now lives in Byron Bay, became the face of the tragedy and somehow along the way he emerged from his pain and grief and found a way to channel his loss into positive community change.

He was instrumental in lobbying the Australian Government for tighter gun-control laws, a goal that ultimately came to fruition, with nearly 700,000 firearms bought back by the Government and removed from society since the laws came into effect that year.

Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre.
Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre. Credit Hobart Mercury

A year after the massacre, Mikac co-founded the Alannah and Madeline Foundation to help protect children from all forms of violence and bullying. Next weekend will be the first time he has publicly represented the foundation in Tasmania.

While the pain of his loss haunts Mikac every day, he has refused to let it define him. Mikac exudes remarkable positivity. He finds a positive answer whenever I refer to an awful memory, and he always sounds at ease. "Everyone has their challenges in life," he says.

"It's all a matter of how we use those challenges, how we interpret them. We can let it engulf us and not allow us to move on, or you have the choice to say, 'I'm still here, there must be a reason for that. I want to make a difference'."

Around the first anniversary of the massacre, Mikac received a letter from Phil West, a father of two girls about the same age as Alannah and Madeline, saying how much he felt for Mikac and suggesting the idea of a foundation in the girls' memory.

Along with West and a small group of volunteers, including massacre survivors Gaye and John Fidler, Mikac established the Alannah and Madeline Foundation. It was launched by then-Prime Minister John Howard on April 30, 1997.

"I contemplated for a while whether I wanted to do it - my daughters' names would be at the masthead of it. But I thought even if I set it up and it only helped children for one or two years, then it would have been worth it," Mikac says. "I had no idea it would build into this fantastic organisation, one of the top two or three children's charities in Australia.

"And now their names are being remembered every day through the foundation and its programs, and the foundation will be around and bearing the girls' names beyond my lifetime, which is a nice thought. When they're not with you, you're missing out on those milestones. At least you know their names are benefiting other children."

After a trip to Tasmania in 1994 to visit Nanette's parents, Mikac and Nanette had the chance to move from Melbourne to buy into a pharmacy at Nubeena on the Tasman Peninsula.

Starting a new chapter of life as well as a new business was both exciting and difficult but, as lovers of nature and the outdoors, they enjoyed making a go of it and quickly became part of the close-knit community.

To this day he does not regret the move. "That move to Tasmania made it possible for me to spend a fair bit of time with the children," he says. "I could see my business from my house.

And after school Alannah would come over to the pharmacy and sit with me doing drawings until I finished up at 6pm.

"So while it hurts, not having them here, I also know I was very lucky to have had that opportunity to spend so much time with them, to have fun with them and form those memories that are so precious now."

On that fateful day of April 28, 1996, the day before his 34th birthday, Mikac was playing golf in a tournament he sponsored.

Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre.
Walter Mikac, now living in Byron Bay, talks about life after the tragic deaths of his family members in the Port Arthur massacre. Credit Hobart Mercury

He suggested to Nanette she take the girls to the Port Arthur Historic Site for the day.

He remembers hearing the gunshots from the golf course but thinking nothing of them, only learning of the shootings after the game when strangers ran into the clubhouse shouting the news.

He raced home and found his house empty. Soon after, he was contacted by a friend who told him of his family's fate. He went to the scene and was allowed to hold his wife and daughters.

It is virtually impossible to read or hear anything about Mikac's trauma without feeling sick with horror, without sharing some of that bottomless grief, and without feeling some level of fury towards the person who caused it.

But while Mikac acknowledges he has had some very dark times since the tragedy, he has made the conscious decision to take all that negative energy and turn it into something else.

"I try to use it in a positive way," he says. "If I'm struggling and having a bad day, I will often talk to Nanette and the girls and ask for help or encouragement. It helps me to speak to them like that.

"It is those everyday things you look back on: baths with the kids, playing in the sandpit, going for walks, going to the beach, all those things.

"They seem like normal, unexciting things to most people, but it's only when you lose it that you become more appreciative of it.

"That's one reason why I want to encourage people to make the most of having their kids. Don't take a second of it for granted."

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation is one of the primary ways Mikac's experiences are helping others. The foundation runs educational programs about domestic violence, bullying and cyber-bullying, supports children affected by violence and works to promote compassion towards children.

"We have helped nearly two million kids in various ways," he says.

"We have packed and distributed about 7000 Buddy Backpacks for kids who are displaced because of violence and family violence.

"I'm shocked at the level of domestic violence in this country, and I wish it wasn't the case. But at least we know that kids, when they are displaced, will get one of our bags containing pyjamas, a toothbrush, a teddy bear, a picture frame, and just some things to help them feel more safe and loved.

"They don't know who it is, but they will know that someone out there cares for them and has provided this for them."

Mikac is especially proud of the foundation's eSmart cyberbullying awareness program being run in a third of Australian schools. Mikac says it is no overstatement to say children have a lot more to be worried about now than in previous generations.

"In my day, if you were bullied at school, at least you were safe at home. But now it continues long after school finishes," he says. "Things can be posted about you all night on different social media and it can be very traumatic for children.

"A generation ago, if someone found out something embarrassing about you, it was just known among your immediate friends, but now thanks to Facebook and so forth, it can spread through entire cities instantly.

"It is definitely a different landscape now and more challenging for children because of that constant information overload as well. They get used to needing to have a screen in front of them or music all the time, instead of just sitting and being."

As the foundation's international patron, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark brings another level of attention to the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which is the only non-Danish charity the former Tasmanian supports.

Another part of Mikac's emotional recovery was finding love and becoming a father again. In the early days of the foundation, Australian TV personality Steve Vizard was chair of the foundation and it was at a Christmas function he hosted in 1997 that Mikac first met sports journalist Kim Sporton. They were married in 2001 and have a daughter, Isabella, who is nearly 16.

Mikac says it took time to allow himself to love again, but he is grateful he took that leap - even though he and Sporton separated two years ago.

"You need to get yourself into a state of mind where you're open to [love], where you feel like you're able to give enough to the relationship for it to work," he says.

"You bring a fair bit of baggage and history to the situation, so starting a new relationship also takes a partner who is willing to commit to all that and to take it on." He is clearly proud of their daughter.

"Three years ago, Isabella did the Kokoda Track and I went with her," he says. "It was a humbling experience to see the sort of conditions those soldiers had to endure while also fighting with the odds stacked against them. But it was also a really special thing to be able to do with my daughter."

Mikac still works as a pharmacist in Byron Bay, as well as doing motivational speaking tours, and is the author of two books, To Have and To Hold: A Modern Day Love Story Cut Short and The Circle of Life: Replacing Hardship with Love. He will be in Tasmania this week for an invitation-only fundraising event to mark the foundation's 20th anniversary on Friday.

Next Saturday, he will be at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart for the launch of a new book, Letters of Love, featuring letters written by prominent Australians to loved ones and published to mark the anniversary of the foundation. The book includes letters penned by singer Jimmy Barnes, ABC 7.30 host Leigh Sales, environmentalist Bob Brown, media host Melissa Doyle and Mikac.

Foundation CEO Lesley Podesta says the book is just one example of the kind of positivity the foundation tries to promote, a philosophy she says is exemplified by Mikac, who is still directly involved in much of the foundation's work.

"One of the reasons we all enjoy working for the foundation is Walter," she says. "He said he made that decision to give his life over to love instead of hate. He survived something none of us can imagine and his response to that was to look at what caused it, at how to reduce it, to focus on making kids feel happier and safer and more included.

"I think the people of Tasmania should feel very proud of the fact that this foundation came out of the aftermath of that massacre, that a source of goodness arose from that." But when Mikac looks at similar events overseas, he despairs at the reluctance of some other countries to galvanise, as Australia did, and follow suit.

He survived something none of us can imagine and his response to that was to look at what caused it, at how to reduce it, to focus on making kids feel happier and safer and more included.

"To me, the biggest legacy of that massacre is the uniform gun laws we got afterwards," he says. "We have had no mass shootings in that whole time since, and I think that is magnificent. Then you look at the Dunblane [Scotland] shootings in 1996 - in the wake of that, the UK essentially blanket-banned handguns.

"But in the US, I don't hold out much hope of things ever changing. Twenty young children were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre [in 2012] and what happened? The response was one of fear: gun sales went up, people armed themselves out of fear.

"Women carry handguns in their handbags to protect themselves from men with handguns, and it is like this big pyramid of fear that keeps on growing. If something like Sandy Hook can't change that, I don't know what will."

I ask Mikac if he thinks he is different now to the person he was before the shootings.

I don't know," he says. "I think I was always a positive type of person before, maybe now just more so? I mean, obviously you change. It shakes your belief system in the world. You still ask the question, 'Why, why, why?'. And it does seem unfair. But, I suppose, once you realise they're not coming back, then you have a choice to make.

"I initially just wanted to shut myself in the house, shut the curtains and not have anything to do with the world ever again. But then I realised that wasn't changing anything. It wouldn't bring them back. I realised life is short. And I realised the best way of keeping their spirits alive was to spread that spirit and love into the world."

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