Quintessential people

Michael Asher: He's Got Game

Michael Jordan Asher belongs to Barrington and Barrington belongs to him.

by Judy Masterson | Photography by thomas balsamo

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The 26-year-old can’t imagine leaving the village where he was born and raised – where he is recognized and greeted with affection by nearly everyone he meets. Unlike many of his friends and his own siblings who finish high school and move away to attend college and launch careers, Michael, who graduated Barrington High School in 2007, will not leave.

“They’re moving on,” says Michael who has always lived in the same friendly, red-brick colonial in the Fox Point subdivision. Michael, who has taken over the bedroom once occupied by his recently married sister Megan, says “I’m not moving to nowhere.”

Michael was born with Down syndrome, a condition he matter-of-factly states, “I will have my whole life.” He is a young man who recognizes his disability and understands that he has both special needs and special gifts.

Gravelly-voiced and playful, Michael is a talented athlete, a country music aficionado who loves to sing, a hard worker, devoted son, loyal friend, and employee. He was recently celebrated by Barrington High School Broncos Boys Basketball for his 10 years as a volunteer team manager. Michael supplies team players with water, gives pep talks, and cheers-on the team.

Michael has confidence. He has charm. He was named after the legendary Chicago Bulls basketball star. Some years ago, when BHS played Loyola Academy at Mundelein High School, Michael spotted the Michael Jordan, who was watching from the stands as his son played for Loyola. At half time, Michael climbed into the bleachers and introduced himself. What did he say?
“I said ‘My name is Michael Jordan,’” said Michael, then laughed.

Michael plays basketball for the Northwest Special Recreation Association and powerlifts for the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association. He has medaled in both sports in the Special Olympics. For the past eight years, Michael has worked as a part-time bagger at the Jewel food store in Barrington.

“I like to do a good job for the customers,” said Michael, who sums up his bagging technique as “bread on the top, eggs on the bottom.”

He enjoys greeting customers, many of them neighbors, former teachers, and friends. At Jewel and everywhere else he goes, Michael exercises his awesome memory for names, faces, and details. Share some personal bit of information with Michael Asher and the next time you run into him, even years later, he will greet you by name, and make you feel important.

Remembering is one of Michael’s greatest gifts.

Michael, whose outgoing personality has earned him the title “Mr. Barrington,” has changed his hometown, helped make it more inclusive, helped its leaders and residents understand that people with special needs have something wonderful to contribute. He was the first kid with special needs to attend regular education kindergarten at Lines Elementary School. He was one of the first to take part in a high school commencement.

Longtime friend and neighbor Jennifer McAndrews called Michael Asher “a gift to our community.”

“He has helped the community accept difference, because Michael is different,” McAndrews said. “He accepts who he is. Everyone accepts Michael and loves Michael, and Michael is the exact same way back.”

Janet and Bernard Asher have been their son’s biggest advocates, enrolling him from infancy in programs that stimulated and challenged and helped him grow. Michael attended preschool like every other kid. The second oldest of five children, he grew up in a noisy and loving household that Janet Asher laughingly describes as “non-stop chaos.”

After high school graduation, Michael participated in the BHS-based LIFECO program, which taught and reinforced life and vocational skills.

“With Michael, there was always an unknown factor,” said Janet Asher, who enjoys the affection so easily given by the son who greets her arrival with the shout “Mom’s home!”

“He’s been a joy since the day we brought him home,” Asher said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been trials. It’s been a rollercoaster.”

“When you have a child with special needs, your perspective changes,” Bernie Asher said. “Your goals don’t change, but your path changes. You as a parent have to advocate, become more proactive on your child’s behalf.”

Michael has trouble with zippers and buttons and he can’t tie his shoes. He will never learn to drive. But he was an early adopter of social media, which he uses to stay connected to his friends and relatives and new people he meets. He video chats and Skypes. He is on Facebook. He mastered his iPhone 5 and the newest version of the iPad.

Janet Asher says that for children with disabilities, “Things don’t just happen, you have to make them happen.” That has meant nudging others to see that including people with disabilities and
making room for differences makes a community a better, more normal place to live and work.

Music is another activity that anchors Michael’s days. A big fan of the American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, Michael sang the star’s song “I Love You This Big” at his sister Megan’s wedding last year. He recently met McCreery during a performance in Chicago.

Come spring, Michael will resume his favorite outdoor activity, riding his big industrial trike around his neighborhood – while singing.

“The sound of music is a part of my life,” Michael said. “It gets me excited. It means a lot to me.”

“What happens at the end of the school year?” Janet Asher prompts her oldest son. “Someone else will graduate high school and come fall, someone else will be leaving your neighborhood,” she reminds Michael. “Who’s that?”

“Jack McAndrews,” answers the young man who has accepted that while others go, he will stay. And that’s okay. Because he is happy right where he is.

“I love my hometown,” Michael said. “I know this place. Everybody knows me.”

Here are some words that others shared about Michael Asher.

Connie Asher: Sister

One of the things I admire about Michael is his natural ability to create a strong, close, and dynamic community around him. He is well-connected in Barrington and beyond, and shows people that they are important and matter to him. I think this is because he really believes that he matters! Michael has an almost impeccable memory. Whether or not you met him at age 5 or just yesterday, he remembers you! Michael is one of the most honest people I know – true to his core. He allows himself to be accurately seen and known by others, cultivating trust and safety around him.

He is alive, full of emotion, passion, and excitement about his life and the people/things he cares about, especially his family and country music.

When you spend time with him, you know he is truly enjoying being with you. He’s not shy when it comes to saying he wants to spend time with you, misses you, and cares about you. This is a true gift and beautiful example to me of how I can better appreciate the wonderful people in my life, especially him.

Whitney Brooks: Neighbor

Michael and I both grew up in Fox Point. We were always friendly as kids, but became close when I was his summer camp counselor at the Barrington Park District. We enjoyed the summers together while playing sports and swimming, but I mostly remember the silly things. We would do Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions, tease one another (usually about girls), perform elaborate high-fives, and even sing for all to hear. It was the greatest “job” of my life.

If you spend time with Michael you will quickly sense his happy, lighthearted demeanor, and he spreads that happiness to the entire community. His positive attitude is infectious and he brightens the day of everyone he meets. I suspect people line up at the Jewel to see him bagging their groceries, complete with a story and a smile. If only we could all “Be Like Mike.”

It has been remarkable to watch Michael grow up over the last 23 years. I am proud to call Michael my friend.

Nancy Gianni: Friend

Michael Asher is a charismatic and articulate young man. I remember talking to Michael at the GiGi’s Playhouse gala a few years back. He looked at me and exclaimed, “I love our Down syndrome, the good one, The GiGi’s kind!” That said it all. He loved the “GiGi’s kind” of Down syndrome because we celebrate life and that is exactly what Michael Asher does every day.

It has been a gift getting to know Michael. He volunteered as a mentor at one of the kids camps at the Hoffman Estates Playhouse. I will never forget how gentle and kind he was to the kids. They absolutely loved him, and he loved working with them. He knows all too well the challenges that kids with Down syndrome have and he helped them work through them with patience and love. It was wonderful to watch.

I am so proud of Michael and the man that he has become! Keep up the good work my friend!

Patti Grant: Former Teacher

Michael walked into my Pre-Vocational class his freshman year at Barrington High School. He became one of six students who helped launch the LIFECO program, an off-campus transitional program for students aged 18-22.

No matter where we went – restaurants, stores, even downtown Chicago - Michael knew someone. He would greet the person with his hallmark smile, strike up a conversation, and then introduce his friend to all of us. Michael is the person he is today because of the strong support system and advocacy provided by his parents, family, and friends. Michael has earned the nickname ‘Ambassador to Barrington’ as he welcomes friends and strangers alike with his smile, a question about their family, his sense of humor, and a wish for a great day!

Fritz Handler: Barrington Youth Baseball Manager

I first met Michael when I was coaching my son, Sam, and Michael’s younger brother, Joe, on a travel baseball team; I made Michael a coach on the team. Michael would shag foul balls, hit a few ground balls prior to practice or a game, and offer endless amounts of advice! The guys on the team would involve Michael with every aspect of the game, including razzing him about his girlfriend Tara. I was also fortunate to attend his birthday party in February, so naturally basketball was a hot topic of conversation. When a couple of the guys were discussing LeBron James, Michael straightened them out! He was not bashful in letting everyone know that Michael Jordan was the #1 basketball player of all time ... not LeBron! Michael Jordan Asher is a huge asset to the Barrington community and I am very proud to have him as a friend.

Tim Hanlon: Childhood friend

I am best friends with Michael. We met when we were 3-months-old. We went to the child program at Clearbrook Center for the handicapped for an early intervention program. We learned how to play and laugh together. We also learned that we are very special friends because we have Down syndrome. Mike and I love having sleepovers, going to the movies together, and our favorite thing to do is play basketball. We have gold medals from Special Olympics because we are so amazing on the basketball court. We also love to play video games together. Everybody needs a best friend to laugh with, share stories, and just hang out with. I am so happy Mike is my best friend.

Mary Howard: Saint Anne School Employee

I have known Michael since he was a toddler, sitting in the front row at Saint Anne Church in his suit and tie. As the manager of my son Chris’ basketball team at BHS, Michael was the team’s biggest fan. Every time I see Michael at Jewel he asks about Chris and tells me to say hi to him. Seeing Michael at Jewel makes my day and my trips more enjoyable especially after I get my hug and kiss. He would come in to volunteer at Saint Anne School in the lunchroom and on the playground. He was great with the kids, and boy did he mean business. He was a tough supervisor. Every Tuesday when he would walk into the office to check in, he knew Sister Ann would greet him, they would hug, and he would give her a kiss and they both would start laughing really hard.

Michael has impacted my life by showing me that a smile from one person to another can make the world of difference. He is a thoughtful, kind man with a very strong faith. Thank you, Michael, for being you!

Jack McAndrews: Neighbor

I have known Michael for as long as I can remember. Michael is my neighbor, but I consider him a brother, friend, and teammate. Michael rides his bike down to our house just to hang out or to sing his favorite country songs on his Walkman. I have been a part of the BHS basketball team and Michael has been with me every step of the way as the team manager. Michael cheers the team on to a victory, hydrates all the players, and gives great speeches to inspire everyone. My brothers and I are always amazed at how many people in our community know Michael. Michael is a friend to everyone in Barrington and an inspiration to me. I am so lucky to have Michael as one of my “brothers” and will always appreciate the gifts he has to offer!

Jennifer and Peter McAndrews: Neighbors

Michael has been a big part of our lives since we moved back to Barrington 15 years ago, and he is truly a part of our family. During our first summer back in Barrington, Michael just showed up one day and made himself at home. He walked to our house to play basketball or whiffle ball, jump on our trampoline, and then “wonder” whether we had anything for a snack. Over the years, Michael’s routine has evolved.

Now he rides his bike (that my boys have named the “Trifecta”) to our house. He arrives with his earphones on, singing the latest country music hit at the top of his lungs. When he finishes his “set” (usually involving some dancing and fist-pumping on our deck), he jumps in on whatever activity is going on around the house – maybe a conversation, or a game on TV (Michael is a Packers/White Sox fan while we are Bears/Cubs fans). He also likes to ride shotgun if any of our older boys are going out for lunch. Michael is considerate and brings joy to others by enjoying life himself. He is a refreshing reminder of what is good and pure about human relationships.

David McHale: Cousin

There is very much in Michael that warrants honor. For one, Michael has a level of genuine care and concern for others that few people are able to match. His life is marked by sincerity and love for others. When he meets a person, he is wholeheartedly engaged with them. Michael has a desire to see people succeed and flourish. I see this in the way that he encourages friends, family, and (sometimes) complete strangers to hold their head up and keep on walking through life. Whether it’s on the basketball court, at Jewel, or on a phone call late at night, Michael brings joy and encouragement to the people in his life. I look up to my cousin, Michael. I see him living life to the fullest in the midst of difficulty. I think the world of him, am proud to call Michael my cousin, and I am so grateful that he is being honored in this way.

Tom McHale: Uncle

Michael is a very special individual. Growing up, he would periodically visit our home for sleepovers and to hang out with my four sons. During these times we got to know Michael better and came to appreciate his unique personality. He is a very warm, enthusiastic, passionate individual who loves people. This defines him more than anything else. He works hard at everything he puts his mind to, and is very committed to any responsibility he takes on. He has had to battle with certain things in life, but I’ve always seen him respond with courage and honesty. He has matured into being a very fine young man and is well-liked by everyone. I am very proud of him, and to call him my nephew.

Megan (Asher) McMartin: Sister

Michael and I are two years apart in age. He has always been protective of me, which has included multiple playful threats to my husband if he doesn’t treat me right! It is quite difficult to put into words how special my older brother is. He is a joy, a delight, and a life-changing individual to know and love. Michael lights up any room he enters. He is genuine and intentional with the people in his company. He cares so deeply about the people in his life, and he has most certainly made me a better sister, friend, and human. Michael has taught me the power of being quick to forgive, and the value in loving unconditionally.

Michael is probably one of the funniest people I have ever met. He has no shame about the things he loves to do or the way in which he lives life. One of my favorite moments with Michael was when he came to visit us in North Carolina. One of the days we spent time fishing with our neighbors. On the following day, we woke up and couldn’t find Michael. We found him chatting away in our neighbor’s garage!

Kristy Odden: Co-worker at Jewel

At Jewel, Michael is outgoing and acknowledges customers by name. Always happy and upbeat, he never seems to have a bad day. He goes above and
beyond to help customers. Michael has no problem taking on additional tasks that are needed without complaint. We even get customer requests specifically for Michael. Jewel Osco is very proud and honored to have Michael as an employee, and I am personally honored to have him as both a co-worker and friend.

Suzanne Quinlan: Aunt and Godmother

February 11, 1988 – the day Michael Jordan Asher was born – is the day our family’s lives would be forever changed. My husband, Tom, and I have the pleasure and honor of being Michael’s godparents; in fact our son Jack is now considered Michael’s “god brother” and our dog Bingo used to be Michael’s “god dog.” Anyone who is lucky enough to know Michael is touched by his ability to reach out and capture people’s hearts in a very special way. Michael puts his heart and soul into everything he does, being the best that he can be no matter what the obstacles, which inspires me to do the same in my life. What I value most is my personal and unique relationship with him, our joy and silliness in talking to each other, having fun doing things together, and our ability to connect and care about each other in a very special way. Michael is one of my favorite people in the world, and I will be forever grateful that our lives are connected in such a meaningful way. Michael, when you read this – I hope you will be reminded of just how much you mean to me and how much I love you.

Arlene Reid: Former Classroom Aide

The first time I saw Michael, he was a baby in his car seat, smiling and laughing. Years later, I was blessed to be his one-on-one aide as part of an inclusion program at Lines School for three years. During this time, I saw him go from a little boy who was dependent on us, to a more confident adolescent, ready to go on to middle school. In 5th grade, I was so proud of him when he led the entire student body out the front doors of Lines School on the last day of school, smiling and laughing.

Mike graduated from BHS in 2007. When he noticed himself on the big screen, he began waving and smiling at everyone. His name was announced and everyone rose to their feet, and there was Mike, soaking up the moment, laughing and smiling. I moved away eight years ago, but we still talk on the phone and exchange messages on Facebook. And whenever I come back to Barrington, Mike and I have a standing date. We head to Dunkin Donuts, to share a laugh and a smile.

Bryan Tucker: Basketball Coach

I am the boys varsity basketball coach at Barrington High School. Michael “Prime Time” Asher has been our team manager for the last 10 years. The Bronco basketball family is fortunate to have Prime Time’s involvement.

Michael is an inspirational leader, providing the team with motivational talks. He has terrific insight and an ability to fire the team up. It is great to see the players and Michael forge a relationship as if they were brothers. Prime Time is definitely a full-fledged team member, celebrating the victories and feeling the disappointment of defeat. He is always upbeat, providing a kind word to uplift everyone’s spirits. Everyone is better for knowing him. Prime Time is a dynamic force that the Bronco basketball family has come to count on and appreciate … inspiring us every step of the way.

Judy Masterson is a writer who lives in Lake County.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share with you exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in the community. For more information about Quintessential People™, contact QB or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits by Thomas) at 847-381-7710 or www.portraitsbythomas.com