When Mike Ashe became the director of Durham’s Board of Elections in 2000, he had a lot to fix. The electoral process had been riddled with inconsistencies for years, and folks wondered if Durham would ever be capable of a clean election.
As a retired lieutenant colonel, Ashe knew a thing or two about how to whip people into shape. But the sense of joy and fun he brought to whatever he did made his military experience most effective, friends and family say.
“They had problems in the elections that had taken place,” said Mike Ruffin, former Durham County manager. “He came in and really turned that place around, had just almost flawless elections.”
Colleagues say that under his direction, Durham’s election process became a model for the rest of the state. While he was disciplined and inspired hard work, Ashe was also known to train precinct workers dressed as Uncle Sam. He played patriotic music and made as many bad puns as he could along the way to keep folks entertained.
Ashe, 69, died last month from what doctors believe was a pulmonary embolism. It came as a shock to his friends and family. He ran 10 miles on his birthday, a week before he died, as was his annual custom.
Ashe was born and reared in Wisconsin, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met his wife of 47 years, Catherine Ashe. He was initially unsuited for academia, and was drafted by the U.S. Army while taking a break from college. It was 1965, and the country was in the throes of the Vietnam War.
First deployed to Germany, Ashe requested to be sent to Vietnam. The military proved a surprisingly good fit, and after serving the requisite two years, he returned to college as an ROTC member, earning both a military commission and a degree in physical education.
Ashe spent a total of 32 years in the military. He and his wife had four children, and they moved 23 times, living long stints abroad.
Once, when his daughter Jennifer Ashe was a teen, she was particularly miserable about having to relocate —again. Ashe hopped on a bicycle to troll around for new friends for her.
“He wanted to fix things,” she said.
Ashe specialized in logistics, and retired as a lieutenant colonel. A few years before he retired, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She sought treatment at Duke University Medical Center, and he finished out his career at Fort Bragg. When it came time to settle down stateside, Durham was a perfect fit.
Even after retiring, military service was hard to give up, so Ashe worked for two years as an arms and treaty inspector, observing peacekeeping efforts between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Desert.
When he finally returned home to stay, Ashe’s managerial and leadership skills proved essential while cleaning up Durham’s election process. He was remarkably adept at keeping his personal politics private, but inspired others with his belief in democracy.
“He never rooted for a candidate, he rooted for the process,” Ruffin said.
“He believed passionately in honesty and integrity and he was very, very good at what he did,” Catherine Ashe said. “‘Voting is the cornerstone of democracy.’ That was one of his very favorite expressions.”
Ashe never looked at his post-military work as less important, and brought equal passion to his civilian career.
“Public service was his thing,” Catherine Ashe said. “He was a very lucky adult who never had a job he didn’t like.”
He inspired his children with his work ethic.
“He thought any job that you had it was worth doing well, and enjoying it on some level. Even on the bad days,” Jennifer Ashe said.
Loved ones remember two of his favorite sayings: “Life is good and getting better,” and “Democracy is alive and well in Durham.”
When he wasn’t working, Ashe was running. He helped found the Wheezers and Geezers running club in Durham. He was quite proud that one of his five grandchildren, Zoe Ashe-Jones, had recently joined the club as a teen.
While in the army, Ashe worked as a paratrooper and had hundreds of jumps. By the time he came to Durham, he had virtually no cartilage left in his knees. He was also hit by a car while running eight years ago and suffered eight broken bones. He was up and running again within two months.
“He used to say, and this was more recently, ‘I may not be fast or pretty but I'm moving my body forward’,” Longtime friend and former Durham city attorney Henry Blinder said. “It was sort of inspirational. He just soldiered on.”
Michael Harold Ashe
Born: April 1, 1946, in Stevens Point, Wis.
Family: Married Catherine Ashe in 1967. They have four children, Timothy, Peter, Andrew and Jennifer; and five grandchildren.
Education: 1972 bachelors degree in physical education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Military: Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965; retired after 32 years as a lieutenant colonel.
Career: After retiring from the military, worked two years in peacekeeping efforts between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Desert. Served as director of Durham’s Board of Elections from 2000 to 2010.
Died: April 9, in Durham.