Michael's Transition from Trustee to Resident

In this inspiring blog post, we hear the extraordinary story of Michael Staff MBE; a former Bank Manager turned devoted Abbeyfield Trustee and now a resident at the new development scheme, Holdenhurst, in Heathfield.

Michael's dedication to Abbeyfield shines through his various roles and experiences, highlighting the impact Abbeyfield has had on his life. From a successful banking career to a passion for music and drama, Michael's journey is one of resilience, community, and the power of human connection.

Career in Banking

Michael's successful career in banking spanned over four decades, from his early days in the bustling City of London to key managerial roles in Surrey, Brighton, and Eastbourne. While excelling in his profession, Michael's life took an unexpected turn when his first wife passed away. However, his involvement with the Eastbourne Operatic and Dramatic Society (EODS) became a source of solace and opened doors to a vibrant hobby that enriched his life.

"I formally retired from my day job as a Bank Manager in Eastbourne in 1990. I started with the bank in 1950, in the City of London. For the first 18 years of my life I was right in the centre of things and worked my way up to junior management at three of the bank’s largest branches, including a spell on the international money market.

"In 1968, I was offered a position in Surrey as I had a heart condition and the bank thought it would be sensible to not do the commute, so I was moved out to West Byfleet, to be Administration Manager. In 1971, my bank merged with another major bank and I was offered the post of Administration Manager at the Eastbourne branch of the other bank.  I did my time there and was offered a role as Marketing Manager for Brighton, East and West Sussex and the Channel Islands. I used to fly regularly to and from Jersey and Guernsey, because for banking there’s a very big offshore business there, and the largest branch was actually in Jersey. I did my time there and had two further managerial appointments in Brighton, and eventually came back to Eastbourne, firstly to the Meads branch and finally to Terminus Road branch where I started. That’s where I retired from.

"My first wife died the year I retired from breast cancer. She was a singer and dancer and, dare I say it, a very good one; also she was the fittest person I had ever known. She got me involved with EODS, initially as Treasurer, then over the next 20 years or so, as a performer. I’ve performed in 45 productions from opera to straight musicals. Now I am the President."

Becoming involved at Abbeyfield

"I’d been retired barely a day and one of my friends, a customer at the bank, who was the Chairman of Abbeyfield Eastbourne, said “We’re looking for a Treasurer to start tomorrow, are you interested?” I had been Treasurer at many charities because of my background in banking. I asked him what it involved and he said it was two hours a week and signing cheques on a Monday and that is how I started with Abbeyfield. I had been there for about 18 months and the regional Chairman, Colonel John Dent, came to visit to see how things were going. He asked if I would be Regional Treasurer for the South East, which I accepted. At the time, the South East had 65 member societies, so I used to share the visiting with the Chairman, going from Hampshire through to Kent.

"Abbeyfield’s Head Office was in Potters Bar at the time, and we used to meet once a year to have a Regional Treasurers’ Meeting. Through that I was asked if I would be on the finance committee for The Abbeyfield Society. I was on the committee for a couple of years, and guess what? They asked if I would like to be the Chairman of that committee, as well as, the Regional Treasurer. When the role of National Chairman came up, I was invited to take the post. At the time I was still Chairman of Eastbourne and had taken the Society through some reorganisation and upgrading of our houses. I had also started talks with the other East Sussex societies to merge to form a countywide single society, to reduce operational costs.

"My role as National Chairman involved a regular commute to St. Albans for meetings and travel around the UK to attend meetings in regions, and of course meet residents and volunteers.

“My favourite story is when I was asked to go and visit the house up in Ballachulish, near Fort William. I left my home in Eastbourne at about 6am and got the first flight to Glasgow, and was met by the Regional Chairman, who took me to the house for the meeting. I left there about 5pm for Glasgow to get a flight back to Gatwick and was back home by 11 pm. It was a long day, but it was important for someone to get there to help sort out some local issues.

“I was also lucky enough to visit houses in Toronto, and Vancouver, and the last trip abroad was to go to Milan and open a new house there. There were some long hours, long days, but the time was my own really, and I enjoyed meeting so many like minded volunteers and the residents.

“So, I did my term as National Chairman and then returned to continue as Chairman of what was now Abbeyfield South Downs, with East Sussex county merger having been completed.

“I met my second wife, Ruth, through Abbeyfield as she worked as a Regional Staffing Advisor for the South East Region. We met when I gave her a lift to the station for a meeting in St Albans and we got chatting away. We have two children each and all four of them were born at the same hospital in Surrey. We had the same interests in music and drama, and that was it! We’d been going out for two or three years, I asked her to marry me, we got married in St. Andrew’s Church, Alfriston and here we are 27 years on – I blame Abbeyfield for that!”

Creating Holdenhurst

Through mergers of multiple societies, including Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings, Alfriston, and Tunbridge Wells, the South Downs was formed. It was during this time that Michael played a crucial role in the development of Holdenhurst, a new Abbeyfield House. With his leadership as Chairman of the Board, the vision for Holdenhurst took shape.

"We had Nolan Taylor appointed as CEO and then we started to talk about building Holdenhurst. Abbeyfield South Downs owned the land, and Holdenhurst was the original Abbeyfield House here; an eight bedded house on the site where the new Holdenhurst is situated. There was a derelict block of flats at the back owned by another charity that had been empty for a number of years and nobody was doing anything with it, so we approached the Trustees. We said, ‘This is sitting there idle, will you sell it to us?’ They said yes, and we agreed on a price, bought it, and planned what you see today. That was in 2014.

"We worked with Abbeyfield to design it, so that it could represent its values and ethos. It took two long years of working out how we were going to do it.

"My main contribution was that I was Chairman of the Board here and got the whole thing started, but then I was struck down with three types of cancer in 2015 and the doctor said 'I think you’ve got to give it up', and that was it. Two of them are in remission, but the other one isn’t. Again, it’s one of those things that I can’t think about as it’s long-term. Something could happen tomorrow or next week – so could I do something else first? So, I’m very ambivalent about all and I’m at the point where you have two choices: sit and tinker until you eventually fade away and die, or you go from here and make the best of what you’ve got.”

Living at Holdenhurst

Despite initially having no plans to live at Abbeyfield, Michael's life took an unexpected turn after a serious accident in his previous home. After suffering a broken back, Michael and his wife Ruth explored the possibility of moving to Holdenhurst. The warm and inclusive atmosphere, coupled with the excellent facilities and vibrant social scene, convinced them to make the transition. Michael loved the sense of community and the opportunity to pursue his love for music, singing, and opera.

"Holdenhurst feels like a smart hotel, and I live in a suite. We all meet together at lunchtimes, we have film afternoons, hiring in the latest films. Every Wednesday, we have a social evening, where everybody brings their own drinks, and it’s just nice with everyone getting together and chatting. We have a keep fit class, which is very popular. There are special days, where the catering is amazing, like Christmas with all the trimmings, and a cold buffet for Boxing Day. The meals are included in the rent, which is a big selling point here.

"Ruth took one look at the drawings of Holdenhurst when they came here and said we’re moving in and put the house on the market.

"There’s a good mix of people age-wise; I think the oldest is 92 and the youngest is around mid-50s.

"My favourite thing about living here is I have plenty of friends, and people from other flats come in and have a chat and have a drink. Or I can go down to the lounge and there’s always somebody there who will happily have a chat about anything. It’s the fact that you have an in-house community, whereas living in your own house, you have to get the car out and go into town. Why would I want to do that? Here, I don’t need to – and the people here are very friendly; we were the first couple to move in. This is the aspiration of any Abbeyfield house. When you get to our age, you just want a quiet life and that’s what we’re getting here. You can go out to town, go to church or whatever you’re into.

"I still sing when I can and I’m trying to persuade them to acquire a piano. The lady who does our keep fit classes encourages breathing techniques and gets the residents singing. I started two choirs in my life, and I think it’s a great hobby. If I have a bad day, I go to choir rehearsals and two hours later, it’s like having a triple scotch! I’m a great opera person and I’ve been a member of the Glyndebourne opera house for over 50 years. Music’s my life really, I love it."

Getting an MBE

Michael's commitment to volunteering extended beyond his involvement with Abbeyfield. His contributions to various charities, including founding a hospice and supporting organisations such as the East Sussex Blind Society, Care for the Carers UK, and the Church, were recognised when he received an MBE in 2010. The prestigious honour was awarded by HRH Princess Anne, affirming Michael's outstanding dedication to serving others.

"I’m still a volunteer at Abbeyfield. I’m still a devoted Abbeyfielder as they call them, as an ambassador. I got my MBE in 2010 for my work with various charities. It came as a bit of a shock when the letter turned up!

"If you’re thinking about becoming a Trustee for Abbeyfield, you need to be good with people. You’ll meet lots of people with different ideas and views, but let that wash over you. Treat them in a friendly and courteous manner. I’ve met some people who have had incredible careers including two ambassadors, and some incredible residents."

Michael’s journey from a dedicated Trustee to a valued resident at Holdenhurst is a testament to the transformative power of Abbeyfield. His illustrious career, involvement in the arts, and enduring commitment to charitable work showcase the rich tapestry of experiences that have shaped his life. Through his story, we are reminded of the importance of developing connections, embracing new opportunities, and cherishing the sense of community that Abbeyfield provides.

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