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An historian, a public servant and a published author, Cherry Cordner is as strong and independent as they come – and it was strength she needed when her husband Ashley was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Cherry is leaving a Gift in Will to support ongoing research into healthy brain ageing, and to fund a scholarship for the strong, independent young women students of the future.

In 2013, the UNSW Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) received an unexpected phone call. CHeBA was then only a year old, having recently been established by internationally acclaimed leaders in the field of ageing and mental health, Scientia Professors Henry Brodaty and Perminder Sachdev.

The voice on the other end of the line, offering to make a substantial donation to the budding organisation, belonged to Cherry Cordner. Cherry had come into contact with Professor Brodaty several years earlier while caring for her husband Ashley.  

By Cherry’s account, after the Depression was almost over, Ashley was a struggling young man in the late 1930s who studied for a science degree at Sydney University by day and by night worked as a film projectionist to pay all his fees and feed himself.  He had no hope of assistance from government or family.  So, he just got on with it.  He served in the American forces during WW2 because of his technical training and after the war earned a PhD in Physics under Einstein.  Back home he did not seem to have the contacts who could have advised him to make the best use of his qualifications.  After a few years he returned to the bush and worked in construction of private airfields and shearing sheds for local property owners.  He served as an alderman on a local country council.  Later he built his own house on his land near Lue and Mudgee.  He was a volunteer at the local SFS.

Ashley retired in the 1990s and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease around 2005.

“The cruellest pain of Alzheimer’s disease is that the person you know is gone,” she says.

Within a short time, Cherry was shouldering considerable responsibilities as Ashley’s carer.

“Then, one day, I saw a little notice saying if you are in need of advice or help because of Alzheimer's in your family, call this phone number,” she remembers.

Cherry was put in touch with a research team led by Professor Brodaty. At first, Cherry and Ashley travelled from their home in Sydney’s northern beaches to meet with the researchers and benefit from their deep understanding of the disease and their innovative approaches to care. But as Ashley’s condition worsened, their trips became less frequent. Ashley died in 2011.

When Cherry called CHeBA in 2013, it was to let the Centre know that she intended to leave a sizable Gift in her Will to support ongoing research into brain ageing.

“I was quite stunned because I had never taken that kind of phone call before,” recalls Angie Russell, CHeBA’s Centre Manager. “So, I came to see Cherry at her home with a package of information, and we had a chat, and we've basically been chatting ever since.”

In the years that followed, Cherry and other donors were invited to various events at UNSW as part of the Chancellor’s Scientia Circle group.  She told Angie she could not come; the time, the distance and traffic from the northern beaches was too far for her.  Angie made a wonderful offer.  She picked Cherry up and took her on the long round trip every time.  “What a friend she has been!” Cherry said.

Along the way, Cherry’s own story has emerged. She was a stand-out student, completing her Leaving Certificate as Dux of Sydney Girls High School. Cherry was subsequently awarded a full scholarship to attend Sydney University and she hoped to pursue a Law Degree.

“I went to find out about it,” she says, “but people said, 'A girl doing law! What would you do with a law degree?'” Being a very shy and inexperienced only child when she went to university after the war she consequently chose an Arts degree instead of Law, despite the fact her awards were full payments in any degree.  She pursued history as part of her Arts degree.  After graduating, she worked in various Government departments and finally in the Department of Education. To her abiding regret, she was too easily dissuaded from enrolling in a Law degree.

In the 1980s, she published her first book, A Mavis Singing. This was published by UNSW Press, long before the time of her meeting about the bequests.  It is the true story of her mother’s family but written in the form of a novel.  The book was short-listed for the National Book Council Awards for Australian Literature.  Her second book The Falling of the Year, is the true story of a murder of a young girl in Mount Gambier in S.A. in the 19th Century.  It was published in 2009.

Cherry’s original motive for leaving money to CHeBA was that she simply felt Professor Brodaty and the researchers were working so wonderfully and courteously for such a worthy cause which needed support.

Lately, looking back over the lives of Ashley and herself, she now sees that they had an interesting characteristic in common.  Both of them had abilities and ambitions which they should have pursued further and fulfilled their dreams.

“Perhaps we would have done so if in our time the information and help available to the young had been as flourishing as it is from the mentors of today. They are more aware now of what guidance isolated young people need to achieve their potential.”

That is why, in addition to her initial bequest, Cherry has added a Scholarship in both their names expanding her Gift in Will.  Despite her many successes, Cherry still regrets her youthful decision not to pursue legal studies, and hopes this scholarship will give another young woman the encouragement they need to follow through on their dreams.

Since making the decision to leave a gift in her Will, Cherry has seen CHeBA’s achievements multiply. The teams led by Professors Brodaty and Sachdev continue to deepen their understanding of both Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia, building an evidence base to inform the development of interventions for prevention and treatment.

Find out further information about leaving a gift in your Will to CHeBA and UNSW here.