As a law student at Melboure University I was almost bowled over at the brilliance of the handsome young dean of the Law Faculty, Professor Zelman Cowen, appointed at the age of 31. In those days he had not yet developed the calm diplomacy of later years: when he asked his Constitutional Law class a question and I volunteered a (wrong) answer he screamed “No!” so loudly that I didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the year.
30 years on when he was Governor General and I was senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, I told him the story; he grinned and said, “I hope I may be forgiven!”
He became Vice-Chancellor of New England and Queensland Universities and succeeded in stabilising both campuses at a time of student unrest. His was an inspired choice as Governor-General after the difficulties of the Sir John Kerr period and he brought what he called “A Touch of Healing” to the office.
He came to several important events at the Great Synagogue during his incumbency and impressed and charmed us all. He and Lady Cowen hosted Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, the president of the ECAJ, the shul president and me and our wives at a luncheon at Government House after Lady Cowen had worked out the kashrut with my wife.
He did a fine job as Governor-General, though we suspected that he was sometimes a little bored after the turbulence of the university campus. He returned to academic life with a few years in Oxford and then returned to Australia as an elder statesman (at a function in Perth when he was 69 he told me, “Next year I reach the age of statutory senility!”).
Australian Jewry was immensely proud of him as our leading citizen and we appreciated his constant constructive support for Israel.
This article was published following the passing of Sir Zelman on 8 December, 2011.