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Colin Plowman (1926–2015)

by Des Ball and Giles Pickford

Colin Plowman, 1986

Colin Plowman, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-986

Colin Plowman made a difference. He changed things that he touched. He was a good man, as well as a complicated man. He was not an easy man.

That is the core of Colin Plowman from our perspective. Here is the fabric of his eventful life.

Colin was born in his beloved Orange on 20 February 1926. Colin would have added that this was the year that Spearfelt won the Melbourne Cup in 3 minutes, 22.7 seconds. Naos came 2nd, Pantheon 3rd. It was three months before the General Strike of the British coal miners that shook the conservative government of Stanley Baldwin. It was between the wars. Three years after his birth the Great Depression would begin and cripple the world for the next 10 years. Colin spoke often and with great affection of his mother who cared for him during this difficult time. He said that she used to say to him, ‘Colin, you’re not often right, but you were wrong that time’.

Towards the end of World War II, 1944–45, Colin was to serve as an Aircrew Trainee in the RAAF. We remember his yarns about flying at night between Melbourne and the South Australian border, navigating by the lights of towns such as Keith. ‘We always turned back at Keith,’ he said.

At the age of 16 Colin joined the Bank of New South Wales as a clerk. He told us that he was ordered by the manager of the Nevertire Branch to throw open the doors of the Bank at 10.00 am and then, facing north towards Bourke he was to shout, ‘I declare this bank open’. He was then to face south towards Nyngan and make the same declaration. It was only after a few days that he realised that it was all a joke, part of his initiation into Australia’s oldest commercial institution.

He left the bank after five years to enrol at the age of 21 as a mature-age, full-time student at the University of Sydney. Here, from 1947 to 1949, he studied for the degree of Bachelor of Economics, majoring in economics and government. He would return to his alma mater in 1953 to work for the Vice-Principal, W.H. Maze, as Secretary to the Faculty of Agriculture and the University Buildings and Grounds Committee.

However, between graduation and his return to university life he spent four years, 1950–53, with the Joint Coal Board as a member of the administrative staff.

From 1954 onwards, Colin lived and breathed the atmosphere of higher education. This was the ground of his being, and he would have a major impact on academia in two states and the Australian Capital Territory. But his influence would spread far beyond these borders, as we will show.

His career in higher education was a steady progress upwards from Graduate Assistant at the University of Sydney to Faculty Secretary and then Assistant Registrar at the University of Western Australia. He arrived in Canberra in 1959 to become Assistant Registrar of the Canberra University College, then Registrar of the ANU School of General Studies 1961 and then Academic Registrar 1968. In 1974, with a painful wrench expressed vividly in his correspondence with ANU, he left Canberra to become Registrar of UNSW, but he was back two years later as Assistant Vice-Chancellor of the ANU—a post he would hold until his retirement aged 65, in 1991.

Beyond the confines of any one of these campuses, Colin’s creative ability to see the future and do something about it was made plain for all to see.

One of his great and farsighted projects was to assist his friends Maurie Blank (Caulfield Institute of Technology), Don Paterson (Canberra College of Advanced Education), Dan Dunn (University of Western Australia) and Ding Bell and Paul Morgan (University of Melbourne) to conceive and give birth to the Australian Institute of Tertiary Education Administrators in 1976, an organisation whose aim was to improve levels of skill and understanding amongst the general staff. This project was opposed by some of limited vision, but they were no match for the men mentioned above. Colin’s skill in winning arguments was more than valuable at this critical time.

His interest in training the next generation of university administrators developed further when the Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee asked him to convene the first University Administrative Staff Course, in collaboration with Syd Derwent of UNSW in 1968.

Colin was always fascinated with the arts, particularly the dramatic arts. He was a member of the first ACT Arts Council and Chair of the Tau Theatre until it burnt down. He was appointed by Gough Whitlam as a consultant to the first Australian Council for the Arts in 1975. He created the ANU Arts Centre in collaboration with Val McKelvey and Di Riddell and nurtured it through difficult times. His presence was felt at many performances at the ANU Arts Centre and at Repertory productions in Theatre Three. He had a huge impact on the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, aided and abetted by Johanna Owens, the founding curator.

Other Australia-wide roles included President of the Graduate Careers Council of Australia (1973) in association with Keith Gravell, a man whose face was even rosier than Colin’s; and Chair of the Council of the Australian College for Seniors, and the worldwide organisation Elder Hostel, in association with Barry Russell of the University of Wollongong.

In his retirement Colin became involved in smaller projects that were less demanding and more enjoyable. His lunchtime presence at Chat’s Café in the ANU School of Art was central to his and many other people’s days. He also travelled widely with Des Ball in southeast Asia and with Giles Pickford in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He maintained a presence at the ANU as a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Continuing Education, collaborating with Peter Stewart and Maurie Weidemann in running an annual series of National Summer Schools for Science Teachers. He also worked with Don Anderson and Dick Johnson on various projects funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training.

His approach in these later years was always philosophical. On any given topic he would question and often adopt a contrary view. His friends and others would ask him where he stood on the issue, but, like Socrates, he would say that where he stood was immaterial. The vital question for him was whether ‘the other’ in the conversation knew where they stood and why. In this way, which could at times be annoying, he helped to strengthen people in their minds and in their beliefs.

Colin had plenty of enemies, as is always the case for a person who was such an agent of change. But he had many close friends, and these people will join with his children, Polly, Colin, Kerryn and Amy, in mourning him. His going leaves an unbridgeable gap in many people’s lives.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Des Ball and Giles Pickford, 'Plowman, Colin (1926–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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