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Ross Ainsworth Hohnen (1917–2003)

by Tim Winkler

Ross Hohnen, 1967

Ross Hohnen, 1967

ANU Archives, ANUA 579-495

Up until the day he died, Ross Hohnen, one of the pioneers of The Australian National University and its chief administrator for 27 years, was likely to be found on the terrace overlooking his beloved garden in Forrest, Canberra. Telephone always close at hand, he would be pouring drinks and holding court to an endless stream of visitors, most of them connected with the multitude of causes that were his passion.

Born in Sydney, he was educated at Bexley Public School and Sydney Boys High before taking up a position with the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney in 1934. A superb athlete, he established many GPS records, some of which were to stand for decades. He worked and kept up sport and scouting activities while studying for an economics degree as an evening student at Sydney University. In his final year of economics, his seminar leader was Nugget Coombs, with whom he was later to work closely in implementing the vision of an Australian national university.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in 1940, Hohnen served as adjutant with the New Guinea Force, transferring subsequently to Borneo with the 7th Australian Division. He was mentioned in dispatches.

While in Balikpapan, he saw an advertisement for Registrar of the New England University College, Armidale. This was sufficient to divert him from his early calling as a banker into public administration, and he became the first registrar of the college—then attached to the University of Sydney—in 1946.

In 1948 he became assistant registrar of the fledgling ANU and by the following year—at the age of 31—he was already registrar. In Making of the Australian National University by S.G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese, he is described as one of the early pioneers of the University. Sir Douglas Copland, the University’s first Vice-Chancellor, remembered him as ‘an enterprising person with a real pioneer touch about him’.

Hohnen thrived on the excitement of creating a new institution and told a colleague it was ‘rather thrilling to see the pattern forming, with piece by piece falling in its place despite the obstacles which oppose us at every stage’. Many of his innovative ideas for the University had their origin in a year-long tour, undertaken in 1955 with his wife, Phyllis, of many of the world’s great universities. Sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, this tour whetted an appetite for travel, and resulted in an extensive international network of personal and professional associations, which they maintained for life.

First as Registrar and then as University Secretary, Hohnen oversaw the University’s administration under its first five Vice-Chancellors. He had a clear vision of what the University was or ought to be about and imparted that vision to all who worked with him. ‘He perceived the university as a close-knit family, in which the administration played a paternal role, as much concerned with the domestic welfare of staff and students as with their academic needs,’ wrote Foster and Varghese. ‘He believed administrators should do everything they could to create an appropriate environment for productive research.’

During the Cold War era, in keeping with his view of the University’s wider role in community affairs, he sought to promote academic exchange between the ANU and universities in the Soviet Union.

Not satisfied with the extent of the challenges thrown up by this emerging national institution, and convinced that the University should play a significant role in the community, he spread his energies across a wide range of community activities, both national and local, including the Scout movement, the National Heart Foundation and various arts and educational bodies.

His efforts in 1957 in bringing together a group of people from industry, government and the design profession led to the formation of the Industrial Design Council of Australia. He was deputy chairman and chairman, and his contribution was recognised by the council in 1971 with the Essington Lewis Award.

In 1975, the effects of a vascular disease forced him to take an early and reluctant retirement from the University. He had headed the University administration for almost 27 years and, according to Foster and Varghese, ‘not only knew how the institution worked, but in many respects … had made it work’. It was said of him that he was ‘Mr ANU’ and that he set the style for the ANU administrative culture of the day.

Retirement gave him a chance, however, to get involved in many of his former community activities.

He had joined the Scout movement as a wolf cub in 1925, and was involved with it in the Canberra-Monaro area for many years. From 1972 to 1976, he was international commissioner for Australia, which led to a term as Chairman of the Asia-Pacific region from 1976 to 1978, with responsibility for 6 million members.

Hohnen was not one to take a half-hearted approach, in spite of the difficulties imposed by the first of two leg amputations. At this time, he and Phyllis decided they would visit each of the member countries in the region during his term in office.

In 1985 he founded, and became Honorary Secretary of, the Arthur Shakespeare Foundation for Scouting. He was rewarded by the movement with its Silver Kangaroo Award in 1985, and the President’s Citation in 1997.

In 1959, on the launching of the National Heart Foundation, he managed to find space for it to operate within University premises. This led to a long association, including 11 years as national secretary, and as national director for a further decade. He received the foundation’s John Loewenthal Award in 1988.

Hohnen’s greatest contribution to the fight against heart disease was in the founding of the Heart Research Institute in Sydney as a testimony to the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988. He was appointed Chairman of the Institute Development Council in 1986 and spent two years assembling the necessary resources for it. The biochemist and physiologist Professor Roger Dean became its founding director. He was a founding member of the board of governors and was ultimately honoured as the institute’s first Honorary Fellow. The institute went on to become a centre of excellence in Australia and received research grants from various funding bodies.

Hohnen also played a significant role in the arts. He was a member of the advisory council for the Canberra School of Music, and Deputy Chairman and then Chairman of the Canberra Theatre Trust from 1968 to 1977. He was a co-opted member of the Australia Council from 1975 to 1977 and a member of the Crafts Board. From 1979 to 1981 he was Chairman of the Planning and Restoration Committee for the Crafts Council Gallery at The Rocks in Sydney.

He received national recognition through the award of Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1967, and Member of the Order of Australia in 1987. He was also the first Canberran of the Year, in 1977.

Hohnen was committed to family, to the University he helped create and to public service. Described by a colleague, Dr Ralph Reader, as a ‘prince of administrators’, he was always in demand for his great energy and organisational talents. Although the sheer physical challenges of succeeding as a double amputee would have been more than enough for most people, they did not appear to reduce the energy or commitment he devoted to his causes.

He is survived by Phyllis, his wife of 63 years, sons Michael, Stuart and Murray, and daughter Alys.

* Originally published in the Canberra Times, 2 May 2003.

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Citation details

Tim Winkler, 'Hohnen, Ross Ainsworth (1917–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 2 March 2024.

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