More Memories of Sir Zelman

February 8, 2012 by J-Wire Staff
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Following the address in Parliament made by the Prime Minister honoring the memory of the late Sir Zelman Cowen, Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg and Labor MP Michael Danby have expressed their feelings in the House.

Josh Frydenberg’s, the Liberal MP for Kooyong told the House:

Sir Zelman and Lady Anna Cowen

“Zelman Cowen was a giant of a man. His record of achievement as a legal scholar, educator and public intellectual has few parallels in Australian life.
As our nation’s 19th Governor‐General, he set a standard that is the benchmark for all those who have followed. His reputation was impeccable, based on a life lived with honesty and integrity to a degree that is seldom found.

Sir Zelman’s life and work won equal plaudits from both sides of the political divide. He was always above the rancour of partisanship.
But it was the private man who was so special to those who had the privilege of knowing him. He was humane and decent, humble yet proud. One could not find a more loyal and caring friend, deeply interested as he was in the wellbeing of others.

Josh Frydenberg

He mentored many of the young people who gravitated into his orbit. Each sought his wisdom and advice, which were always dispensed with a generosity of spirit.
Age was no barrier to friendship with Sir Zelman for he would elevate you to his level, making you feel comfortable in his presence.

I vividly remember my first meeting with him, nearly two decades ago, when his humour and wit quickly put this young boy at ease. He never needed to demand respect or command obedience but, by virtue of his very nature and being, he simply earned it.

Right to the very end of his life, including the day of his passing, I and many others like me listened intently to his every word, knowing we were in the presence of greatness. He was an example and an inspiration and it is through those whom he mentored and his extended family that his legacy will live on.

Sir Zelman’s intellectual brilliance and firm moral compass were equally matched by a deep sense of his own identity. It is said that to know where you are going you have to know where you come from. Sir Zelman knew this. He was proud of his immigrant background and his Jewish faith and he never sought to distance himself from his heritage during his long and distinguished career.

He was a devoted family man and one half of a 66‐year‐long perfect marriage. Lady Anna Cowen, who is with us today, is brilliant in her own right and was the source of much of Sir Zelman’s strength. As Governor‐General, the touch of healing he brought to the nation was equally hers. His love for Anna knew no bounds and I am not the first to say that, barring a small issue of Jewish tradition, she would be a saint.

Looking back at Sir Zelman’s life, it is as if he were destined for greatness from the very beginning, born as he was on the day Alfred Deakin died.

As a schoolboy he knew he had special talents and at every step of the way he brought them to bear.

He was always grateful for the opportunities that fell his way, describing himself as the most favoured of mortals. It is our nation’s good fortune that such a gifted and principled man devoted his life to public service.

We are all saddened by his passing but can be proud of his legacy and the many lives he has touched. I am proud to have called such a great Australian my friend.”

Michael Danby, Labor MP for Melbourne Ports told the House:

Michael Danby

“Sir Zelman Cowen was a second generation Australian. He was born Zelman Cohen in Melbourne in 1919 to a family originally from Belarus, then part of tsarist Russia. Originally from Ballarat, the Cohen family lived in St Kilda, even then a Melbourne suburb with a significant Jewish population. His father was variously employed as a car salesman and manager of an oil company and changed the family surname by deed poll to Cowen in 1922. Like so many of us, he was guided by his mother Sara, who, by his own admission, had strong ambitions for her son, which I would say he more than amply fulfilled.

For all of his national and international repute, Sir Zelman Cowen was a St Kilda man at heart and never forgot the suburb where he was born—a suburb which I am proud, obviously, to represent in this parliament. He never forgot his boyhood on the streets of inner-city Melbourne and his immigrant heritage, as the member for Isaacs so aptly referred to earlier. In his autobiography, Sir Zelman recalls his first day at St Kilda Park Primary School, looking at the blackboard and thinking he would never make sense of what was there. Well, he did, of course, and more than most.

I had the privilege at the end of 2011, just prior to his funeral, of dedicating brand new extensions to St Kilda Park Primary School, just around the corner from my electoral office in Melbourne Ports. I noted the dedication of Sir Zelman Cowen as the school’s most distinguished alumni. I know Sir Zelman would have approved of these extensions. His wife, Lady Anna Cowen, told me quite movingly at lunch that, while he was Governor-General, he was actually counted out—Sir Ninian Stephen took the role as his replacement while he was doing his last function at St Kilda Park Primary School.

My friends from the Chabad movement and his son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, would probably think it is, as they say, beshert—ordained—that that very morning, in a function that was organised long before his death, I would go there to make those extensions and then walk from there to Temple Beth Israel to his funeral service. St Kilda Park Primary School has had many distinguished alumni, including the great cricketers Ponsford, Miller and Johnson, and Sir William Dargie, who won eight Archibald Prizes. But Sir Zelman is the school’s most distinguished alumni.
He was a Saints man because the Junction Oval was just across the road, and he was their No. 1 supporter and patron. Lady Cowen very proudly showed me his life membership tag at lunch. Sir Zelman could never be called inconsistent in his lifelong support of the Saints and, until recently, attended St Kilda games. I remember attending one very memorable and sad one with him in the Long Room some years ago against Melbourne. On the Saints football club’s obituary page for Sir Zelman, the team has posted a particularly apt and charming photo of Sir Zelman smiling with delight with that great character of Aussie Rules football Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale, who kicked five goals in the 1966 grand final. Perhaps our team, St Kilda, could benefit by inscribing what sometimes was stated in Sir Zelman’s philosophy of life: ‘the next thing and the next thing’.

I had many experiences with Sir Zelman over the decade since I became active in student politics—including with Steven Skala, who is present in the chamber with the family and Sir Zelman’s son Nick—perhaps most memorably during the republic debate, on which the member for Berowra accurately cited Sir Zelman’s view in favour of a parliamentary system of electing an Australian head of state. My most memorable encounter with Sir Zelman involved learning about Australian history. One day we fell into deep conversation about the Japanese attack on Darwin, which he was present at as a young naval intelligence officer. He explained to me that perhaps Australians were not quite as brave and as fearless as some of us would like to imagine and that history is perhaps more complicated than we realised. He and Australian naval intelligence played a great role in the defeat of the Japanese naval forces through the signals they sent for the crucial Battle of Midway. Sir Zelman rightly enters the pantheon of great Australians of the character of Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs.”

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