JOHNSTOWN — Michael C. Ukaj, a U.S. Marine Corps. and Iraq War veteran, was laid to rest Wednesday with full military honors at Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery following a service in his hometown.
Ukaj was one of 20 people killed in the limousine crash in Schoharie on Oct. 6, which was his 34th birthday. He was the last of the 18 occupants of the limo to be buried. A funeral service for Brian Hough, of Cayuga County, was also held Wednesday, and another one is planned for Saturday in Carlisle, Pa. Hough is one of two pedestrians killed in the crash.
There was also a candlelight vigil for Amanda Rivenberg on Wednesday evening at our Living Resources office at 300 Washington Avenue
Extension, Albany at 7 p.m.
A funeral service was held for Ukaj, a Caroga Lake resident, at the A.G. Cole Funeral Home in Johnstown. Patriot Guard Riders displaying American flags stood as an honor guard in front of the funeral home on East Main Street before and during the service.
Ukaj’s youth minister Mark Gillen, and his wife Gailmarie, helped organize the funeral service. They both spoke of the importance of God in helping the family and friends of Ukaj and the other people killed in the crash to endure the pain of the horrible tragedy.
Family and friends told stories about Ukaj, which included anecdotes about his life growing up in Johnstown, his decision to enlist in the Marines., his combat service in Iraq, as well as his love for video games and his time working at GameStop.
Mark Gillen highlighted one thing he thought important about Ukaj, the proper pronunciation of his name. The U in Ukaj is pronounced like the sound ‘oo,’ the k has the typical ‘kuh’ sound and the ‘aj’ makes the long “I” sound, the j being silent.
“His friends call him U-jack. The last eight days I’ve heard him called a lot of things. I called all of the news stations to make sure they were pronouncing it right; they all thanked me,” he said. “When we were in Schoharie [at the memorial for the victims] and there were a 1,000 people at least in that gymnasium, and they got up and they read the names, and it was a real solemn time as you can imagine, and the priest was ringing the bell after every name. And he said “Michael ‘Oo-gog’ or something, and Kyle [Ashton], his stepfather, but his father believe me, got up and said ‘Michael Christopher Ukaj’ and then he yelled it again ‘Michael Christopher Ukaj’ because we want to get it right, because his name was who he was, and that’s how we want to remember him, or U-Jack.”
‘I loved that guy’
Michael Ukaj was born in Queens on Oct, 6, 1984, son of the late Shaban Ukaj and Mary Fletcher Ashton. His parents Kyle and Mary Ashton now live in Winterport, Maine.
He’s also survived by his two brothers, Jeremy Ashton and David Ashton, one sister, Violetta Ramsey and one nephew, Alexander Ashton.
Jeremy Ashton spoke at the service, and said his brother was an important role model for him.
“The place he had in my life was as a mentor,” he said. “Often in life, when I was unsure how to handle something, I would turn to him.”
Bradley Armstrong of Johnstown said he grew up best friends with Ukaj. He said he was inspired to join the U.S. Marines after Ukaj joined.
“I knew Mike ever since I had a memory. I don’t think there was a day in my life that I didn’t know him,” he said. “He was the best friend I ever had.”
Armstrong said children loved Michael Ukaj, even though he was largely ambivalent to them and complained about being required to babysit for his friends too often.
“He was like catnip for kids,” he said.
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Armstrong said Ukaj loved video games and gadgets.
“He tried to sell me more of those TV Guide things than anyone I ever met, he could have worked part-time there,” he said. “He had this one little plastic thing that made the perfect hamburger like at Price Chopper or something. I swear he got me at his house and tried to sell me it.”
Armstrong said Ukaj was the smartest person he ever knew and told a story of how when they were young they were confronted by bullies at a playground.
“They were throwing stones at us and sticks at us, and Mike and I were dodging them, and it was kind of a game for us, we didn’t care, and the whole time I’m yelling at them ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ I kept yelling it and they kept throwing the stones,” he said. “I didn’t do the math on that until we got back to the house. Mike said to me, ‘Wait a minute, were you saying sticks and stones will break my bones?’ and I said, ‘Yeah’, and he said ‘They were throwing sticks and stones!.’ I loved that guy.”