October marked 100 years since the birth of the University of New England's second vice-chancellor, Sir Zelman Cowen.
Zelman Cowen was born in Melbourne on 7 October 1919, the son of Bernard and Sarah Cohen. His father changed the family name to Cowen a few years after his birth.
After studying locally, the boy won a scholarship to Melbourne's Scotch College where he was dux in 1935. He then studied law at Melbourne University, winning the Supreme Court Prize as top student, followed by a Rhodes scholarship.
With the onset of war, Cowen deferred the scholarship, enlisting in the Royal Australian Navy. He was in Darwin at the time of the Japanese bombing in 1942 and then served on General McArthur's staff in Brisbane.
In 1945, Cowen married Anna Wittner. The couple became, in the words of Michael Kirby, "a partnership of intellect, culture and wit" with Anna "sometimes softening the ego that was a feature, probably inevitable, of such a brilliant man."
One senior New England academic who, while liking and respecting Cowen, described the pair somewhat acerbically as Anna and the King of I Am.
Following his marriage, Cowen took up the delayed Rhodes scholarship at Oriel College, Oxford. There he again demonstrated that energy, drive and intellect that had already marked his life.
He won the Vinerian Scholarship as the top graduate in civil law and became a lecturer at Oriel. There he won his doctorate with a biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs.
Isaacs, a hero of Cowen's, had become Australia's first Jewish Governor-General after serving on the High Court of Australia, including a period as Chief Justice.
In 1950, Cowen returned to Melbourne University as the chair of public law. He also became Dean of Law.
While at Melbourne, Cowen began broadcasting radio commentaries, mainly on legal topics including the attempts by the Menzies Government to dissolve the Australian Communist Party.
Cowen was becoming a prominent public intellectual, a not always easy role in Australia. He was also interested in questions of civil rights and privacy, concerned about the potential erosion of individual liberties.
In 1966, Sir Robert Madgwick resigned as the University of New England's vice-chancellor to become chair of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
As Warden of the New England University College and then as first VC of the newly autonomous university, Madgwick had steered the institution through the difficult early foundation stages.
Cowen accepted an invitation to become the second VC, arriving in Armidale in 1967. In my next column, I will look at his role as VC and beyond.