Determined battler who never gave in

Reporter:

Rob Bellis

HE is often controversial and always persistent.

But whether you support him or not, you cannot help but admire the sheer determination of disability rights campaigner Ken Mack.

Surprisingly though, the 69-year-old from Wrexham recently announced he is to mothball his placards to focus on his family life.

Ken has been campaigning for the rights of vulnerable, disabled and elderly people for some 39 years

During that time he has led four delegations to Downing Street and written literally thousands of letters to MPs, councillors and newspapers.

Lately, though, it is Ken who has been receiving the letters – from prominent figures and politicians that he has encountered, expressing their gratitude for his work and their sadness at his decision to step down. But the veteran campaigner has never wanted to be seen as a hero.

For him, the heroes in this world are the people he has represented.

Ken’s fight for disability rights started in the 1970s, but its roots lie much further back in history.

“We’re all driven by our past and for myself, like many others, it was one of acute deprivation,” he recalled.

“It started in 1904 when my grandmother conceived my father out of wedlock. As things were in those days she was disowned not just by her family, but by the
church and the state as well.

“She managed to raise enough money to emigrate to Liverpool, to Walton Hospital, which had the workhouse attached.

“My real name is Ken Macswiney. She abbreviated the surname because of the shame surrounding her predicament.

“When my father was born it affected him. Despite being from a Catholic background, as an illegitimate child she brought him up in the Protestant faith.”

Ken’s own childhood in Liverpool was also a difficult one.

“He (Ken’s father) became a seaman and, I have to say, an alcoholic one at that. It was 1941 when I was born and there wasn’t the support in those days that you have today. There is still child poverty in this country, but not compared to how it
was then.

“My late mother had no family to turn to and my father only had his elderly mother who suffered terribly with osteoporosis by that time.

“I was one of seven boys and, because of my father’s drinking, my mother suffered from nervous depression.

“She spent much of her life in and out of mental institutions where she underwent electric shock therapy and eventually had a leucotomy (a form of brain surgery involving the interruption of nerve tracts to and from the frontal lobe of the brain).

“My brothers and I literally fisticuffed for what food was there. I still bear the scars – I’m deaf in one ear – but I don’t blame any of my brothers at all, that’s just how it was.”

In 1949 Ken and three of his brothers were taken to the Nazareth Orphanage in Widnes.

“All I remember was an ambulance coming for my mother. It was a very depressing site.

“The nuns in the orphanage literally had to go out and beg for food because it wasn’t state funded.”

Ken went to school in 1952 and stayed until 1956, when he was 15.

He remained in Liverpool working as a marketing assistant, buying wholesale fruit and vegetables for the Littlewoods chain based in the company’s Old Hall Street headquarters.

In 1965 Ken met his wife Mary at a dance hall in Liverpool city centre. She was in the city to complete her nursing training and the couple married later that year.

The following year, however, tragedy struck the Mack family with the death of Ken’s brother, Jimmy.

“Jimmy has always been a hero of mine,” Ken mused. “He went to the grammar school where he excelled and then went on to get a degree in science.

“He became a nuclear physicist and worked at Aldermarston for a time, but left there and went to work for the Central Electricity Generating Board.

“Coming home from work one day he was involved in a car crash. His head had hit the windscreen and although nothing was thought of it at the time, he started
having blackouts about six months later.

“Being a scientist he wanted to know exactly what was wrong with him. He went to Maudsley Hospital in London where they told him that he had suffered brain
damage. He was 33-years- old and they told him he wasn’t going to get any better.

“From then on he lived in the hospital during the week and came home on weekends. He would take the train home and was on his way home one weekend, at Hernhill train station, when he threw himself under a train.

“He was an academic and work was everything to him. He committed suicide because he knew he wasn’t going to get better.”

The events of Ken’s early life have shaped his outlook on things and even in his late 60s he has retained an unwavering resolve.

Shortly after his brother’s death Ken took a job selling wholesale fruit and veg to traders and it was this role that would prompt him to move to the region.

“One of the traders who I used to sell to had a shop in Chester, on Christleton Road, which he wanted someone to run for him,” Ken said. “It had a flat above the shop and it sounded like a good thing so I ended up working there for four years.”

When the shop closed Ken and Mary came across the border to Wrexham.
In 1972 their twin sons – David and Kenneth Junior – were born. But there were complications during the birth and as a result both were left with severe learning difficulties.

The couple have been their sons’ carers for their whole lives.

Ken admits his sons’ disabilities and his concern for them has spurred him on over the years.

“When the boys were seven the old Clwyd authority requested they go into institutionalised care, which of course we refused,” Ken explained. “Because they have no visible disabilities there is a general lack of understanding.

“David grew out of his epilepsy when he was 11, but Kenneth still fitted until he went on to a different medication four years ago.”

Over the years Ken has helped many people and done much to highlight the plight of vulnerable, disabled and the elderly – in particular for the elderly in care.

He remains disappointed about a lack of success in some areas, but is proud of what he has achieved.

And just before he put his typewriter away for good, Ken wrote one final letter.

He mailed it to Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to “pick up my mantle and strive to keep the politics out of disability”.

See full story in the Leader

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