Sir Zelman Cowen passes away

December 9, 2011 by Henry Benjamin
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Sir Zelman Cowen, Governor-General of Australia between 1977 and 1982 has passed away at his Melbourne home at the age of 92.

Sir Zelman and Lady Anna Cowen

The former Rhodes Scholar and dean of the Faculty of Law at Melbourne University died at his Toorak home on the 34th anniversary of his swearing-in. His wife, Lady Anna Cowen was by his side.

Her majesty Queen Elizabeth II created Sir Zelman Cowen a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order when she visited Melbourne in 1980.

Sir Zelman Cowen had a distinguished career in law and was patron of St Kilda Football Club.

No stranger to turbulence, he took over as Governor-General from Sir John Kerr who retired before the end of his term. Sir John Kerr was the Governor-General in 1975 who dismissed the Whitlam Government. Sir Zelman Cowen also spent five turbulent tears on the board of Fairfax, during three of which he was the company’s chairman.

Sir Zelman Cowen published a biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs, the only other Jew to have held the office of Governor-General (1931-1936).

Prime Minister Julia Gillard issued the following statement: “Australia has lost one of our greatest statesmen with the passing of Sir Zelman Cowen overnight.

Sir Zelman will be remembered for his service to this country in so many ways, no more so than as the 19th Governor General of Australia.

With great dignity and humility, Sir Zelman entered the role in 1977, determined to bring a ‘touch of healing’ to our nation. And he did.

The modern prestige of the office can be greatly credited to his healing touch and for this alone I believe we owe him a debt of gratitude.

Sir Zelman’s time as Governor General is just one highlight of a long, distinguished and extraordinary life.

Sir Zelman was a great scholar, teacher, author and advocate. He mentored many of his students who today are lawyers, politicians and leaders in industry and business.

He was a tireless servant of our nation, even delaying his Rhodes Scholarship so he could serve in the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, which saw him stationed in Darwin during the Japanese attacks.

Sir Zelman was a proud member of the Australian community, a proud member of the Jewish community and a leader of both. He was a humanitarian whose ongoing dedication to justice and public welfare will remain one of his great legacies.

We will remember him for his warmth, his humility, his integrity, his compassion and the great dignity he brought to public life.

Above all, Sir Zelman was a loving husband and father who will be missed by his wife of 66 years Anna and his children Shimon, Yousef, Kate and Ben.

The thoughts of a nation are with them today.”

Tony Abbott added: “It is with sadness that we record the death of Sir Zelman Cowen in Melbourne overnight but, with his passing, we honour his contribution to the public life of our nation.

Sir Zelman was a distinguished legal scholar, educator and public intellectual. With his appointment as Governor-General in 1977 following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, he brought a touch of healing to our polity. He ensured that people kept their confidence in our political system and will be remembered as a unifying figure in our country’s history.

A man of deep intellect, humanity and dignity, Sir Zelman saw himself as a servant of the Australian people. He championed many causes, some public and others private but all good which helped to endear him to countless of his fellow Australians.

His legacy will live on through all those to whom he was a mentor and exemplar.

Sir Zelman was a great man who loved his country and his family, and was extremely proud of his Jewish faith. On behalf of the Coalition, our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the many people of our nation as they mourn the loss of a fine Australian.”

Isi Leibler, a former president of the The Executive Council of Australian Jewry told J-Wire: “Sir Zelman Cowan will be viewed historically as one of Australia’s most outstanding Jewish personalities.

He embodied many remarkable qualities. He was an internationally admired scholar blessed with a brilliant legal mind as well as being a great statesman who served his term as Governor General with distinction.

The Jewish community gained particular luster from the fact that Sir Zelman was at all times a proud Jew and a devoted Zionist who loved and supported Israel.

He was, above all, a wonderful, kind and compassionate human being. I fondly recollect our personal encounters. He will be greatly missed by all who were privileged to know him.”

Nina Bassat, president of The Jewish Community Council of Victoria said: “Sir Zelman Cowen was a man of enormous stature in every walk of life. Whatever role he filled, he did so with dignity and distinction. He is remembered with love and respect as an outstanding Governor- General,  as an inspiring  dean of law at the University of Melbourne, as a strong and effective Vice-Chancellor, and as a brilliant academic. He had a formidable intellect, and those of us who were fortunate enough to be taught by him, still remember his wonderful lectures.

We have lost a great Australian Jew and a great man.  We offer our condolences to Lady Anna Cowen and the whole family.”

Dr Colin Rubenstein is the executive director of The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council told J-Wire: “As a student at the University of Melbourne in the early 60’s,and later as  an academic ,Sir Zelman Cowen was to me and so many others  the model of an outstanding  legal scholar, jurist  and engaged  public intellectual. He became,of course, a vitally important  figure in Australia’s constitutional history as the man who restored integrity to the office of the  Governor-General at a time when it risked falling into disrepute. He was an absolute pillar of the Australian Jewish community, lending his gravitas, support and wise advice to numerous  organizations and individuals active  in our communal life, as well as  remaining a life-long strong , principled and consistent supporter of Israel. He was an irreplaceable figure, and his loss will be keenly felt throughout the Australian Jewish community and indeed, all circles of Australian public and political life. The Australia /Israel &Jewish Affairs Council(AIJAC) extends our sincerest condolences to Lady Anna Cowen, their children  Shimon, Nick,  Ben and Kate, and all the members of the Cowen family.”

President of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Dr Danny Lamm said: “I can recall two recent experiences. One when as Zionist Council of Victoria president I awarded the Jerusalem Prize to Sir Zelman which he accepted with great humility. The second was being invited by the gracious Lady Cowen for Sunday brunch with Sir Zelman along with my guest the Deputy President, of Israel’s Supreme Court Judge Eli Rivlin and bearing witness to a lively legal discussion.”

He added in an official statement:  “The Australian Jewish community joins with all Australians in mourning the death yesterday of Sir Zelman Cowan AK, GCMG, GCVO, QC, PC.  In a long and distinguished life of public service, Sir Zelman was a powerful influence for good in many fields.  He will be remembered for serving his community and his country in the law, academia and in public office. He was Australia’s second Jewish Governor General.  After the rancour and controversy surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam government by his predecessor, Sir Zelman brought healing to Australian political life and restored respect to the office of Governor General.  Sir Zelman positively touched the lives of many people with his support, encouragement and good humour.   A gentle man, with a powerful intellect, he was a proud Australian and a proud Jew.  We wish long life to Sir Zelman’s widow, Anna, and their children.  Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”

Sir Zelman Cowen is survived by his wife Lady Anna, sons Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, director of the Melbourne-based Institute for Judaism and Civilisation, Nick and Ben and daughter Kate.

He is also survived by sixteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Comments

2 Responses to “Sir Zelman Cowen passes away”
  1. Andrew Gilbert says:

    As a child I grew up in England with my grandfather regularly cutting out news stories about the academic promotions that were achieved by his first cousin’s son, Zelman, in Australia. We were all so proud of these and were continued to be in awe of his contribution’s to the wider Australian community as Governor General. Whilst he was in Britain, we spent quality time together.

    thoughts and prayers with Anna and family at this time.

  2. Emes says:

    Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

    He was a great man whose achievements in life have been an inspiration to so many, particularly in the law and academia. I had the privilege of speaking to him a number of years ago and I came away with the feeling that I had spoken to a truly great Australian.

    May his beloved wife and children be comforted among all who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.

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