Filled as he was with the joy of life, Sir Zelman Cowen never lost his sense of humour.
Less than two hours before he drew his final breath I asked him ‘what is your favourite opera?’
It is too difficult he replied.
In my gravelly voice I tried to sing the words from Puccini’s Turandot ‘nessun dorma, nessun dorma’ but stopped telling him ‘that is all I know’.
He gently smiled and said ‘that’s not bad for you.’
This was the final chapter in what was the most special friendship of my life.
It began nearly two decades ago when I was introduced to Sir Zelman by our mutual friend Steven Skala.
I was a law student who dreamt of going to Oxford. He was a colossus, whose public life had few parallels.
It was not a meeting of equals.
But Zelman with his generosity of spirit, intense loyalty as a friend and a genuine interest in another’s well being, sat and talked for hours with me, each weekend, for many years, about his life, the world and the challenges ahead.
It became Sundays with Zelman.
It didn’t matter if it was a discussion about literature or music, philosophy or the law, Zelman was equally in command. He was a polymath and a great conversationalist.
I learnt about his childhood, when as a young boy he called himself Casey because his mother used to call him Zelman Cowen KC.
About his time at university, which he termed a place of riches, for it gave his mind the space to roam.
And about his term as governor-general, which was both the greatest opportunity and challenge of his professional life.
We would laugh as Zelman recalled the weeks after which he was officially asked to be governor- general but could not make it public. In July 1977 a law professor at the University of Queensland brought along a visiting American academic to see Zelman. During the conversation the professor asked for Zelman’s thoughts as to who would be the next governor-general, Zelman started coughing into his hands, reluctant to give anything away. Then without hesitation the American academic with “some knowledge of the current controversies, asked ‘what superannuated old fool’ would wish for such an appointment?” Zelman was later to say the only issue he would take with him was that he wasn’t superannuated.
As we sat at the Cowen kitchen table where Zelman recalled each of these stories from his life, it was as if the back window had been opened to the history of our nation, and all the great figures and events of the 20th century were warmly blowing in.
Isaacs, Latham, Dixon and Menzies were all subjects of extensive discussion. So too was his first-hand account of the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 and later his brush with General Macarthur at his Brisbane headquarters.
There were also memories of his relationship with the great headmaster of Geelong Grammar, Sir James Darling, which began when Sir Zelman as an eleven year old corresponded directly with him, inquiring about the chances of a scholarship.
In each of these remarkable stories, the depth and diversity of his experiences and interests were ever present.
In discussing public affairs Sir Zelman was always above the rancour of partisanship as he focused on what is important, values and principles.
This is why a man who was appointed by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser to heal the nation’s wounds could comfortably open the H.V. Evatt Memorial Appeal and count Gough Whitlam among his friends.
It is no surprise that Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speaking on behalf of all Australians, graciously and accurately described Sir Zelman as one of our greatest statesman.
For me personally, one of the foundations of our friendship was our shared Jewishness.
Sir Zelman’s intellectual brilliance, profound decency and firm moral compass were equally matched by a deep sense of his own identity.
It is said that in order 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 never sought to distance himself from his heritage during his long and distinguished career.
To the contrary he was an active patron and supporter of many Jewish causes and this legacy will endure.
He deeply loved his family and was one half of a 66 year long perfect marriage. He would often say, sometimes with tears in his eyes, that he looked at his wife in wonder.
Lady Cowen 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 was destined for greatness from the very beginning. Born as he was on 7 October, 1919 the day Alfred Deakin died.
As a school boy 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 great nation’s good fortune that such a gifted and principled man devoted his life to public service.
We are all saddened by his passing and can be proud of the legacy that he has left behind and the many lives he has touched.
I will never forget those Sundays with Zelman and count myself extremely lucky to call such a great Australian my friend.