Canberra Citizen of the Year


Ross Ainsworth Hohnen (1917-2003)

Ross Hohnen from the Canberra Times 25 November 1976 

SOURCE: The Canberra Times, 25 November 1976, page 15.

Born at Arncliffe, NSW on 21 October 1917, Ross was the youngest of five sons of Charles Edward Hohnen (1865-1938), a commercial traveller, and his second wife Edith Jane nee Ainsworth (1877-1971). He had two stepbrothers and three stepsisters from his father’s first marriage to Mary Agnes Murphy (1866-1894).

Ross attended Bexley Public School where he first encountered scouting, which was to become a lifelong passion, and Sydney Boys’ High School. In 1933 he joined the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney as a clerk, where he worked until 1939. He started evening classes at Sydney University in 1936, graduating with a Bachelor of Economics.

In 1940 Ross enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) and served in Australia as a Lieutenant in 118 General Transport Company. In 1942 he joined the Australian Military Force (AIF) as a Lieutenant and served as an Adjutant in New Guinea and Borneo, where he was mentioned in despatches for service in the Southwest Pacific Area April-August 1945.

Following demobilisation in December 1945, Ross was appointed as the first Registrar of the New England University College, Armidale from 1946 to mid-1948. For about a year in 1948-1949 he was Assistant Registrar at the Australian National University (ANU), then Registrar from 1949 to 1967 and Secretary from 1968 until his retirement on medical grounds in 1975.

As the second Registrar at ANU he established the professional administration of the university, at the same time keeping it in touch with developments in the community, particularly in relation to industrial design and the arts. He won a Carnegie scholarship and spent January to October 1955 studying university administration in the United States and Europe.

He was a member of the Anglican Synod in Canberra in 1959, and also a member of the establishment committee for St Mark’s Library and subsequently a supporter. Post-retirement, he served on the Councils of the Canberra School of Music and the University of Wollongong.

In the 1950s there was interest in a social education movement that had begun in Europe in 1945 – a form of adult education concerned with the discovery of both the nature of a social problem as well as the nature of responsibility in relation to it. The Australian Frontier Commission was incorporated in 1962 with Ross as public officer, with the intention of establishing an ecumenical institute that would engage in research, discussion and teaching on major issues relating to social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual development. Building plans were drawn up for a site next to St Mark’s Library, but delays meant that the Institute’s curriculum was overtaken by courses offered at other institutions and the project was abandoned in 1974.

Ross saw himself as a ‘back room man’. He was a skilled administrator, establishing and chairing a variety of organisations from Scouts to the Heart Foundation, industrial design to music and theatre, that benefited not only Canberra but also Australia and the wider world.

Scouting was his first love. Soon after his arrival in Canberra he joined the Canberra Division of the Boy Scouts Association, being elected vice-chairman in 1951. He went on to be the Australian International Commissioner for Scouting (1970-1976), chairman in 1977 of the Asian-Pacific region of the World Scout Organisation, the first Australian to hold the position, and finished in 1981 almost where he began, as president of the new independent Canberra branch of the Scout Association.

His interest in design and the arts was expressed in a rapid succession of new endeavours. He founded the Industrial Design Council of Australia in 1957 and was chairman in 1966. In 1967 he helped found Musica Viva in Canberra. He was one of nine founding trustees of the Canberra Theatre Trust in 1968, then deputy chairman (1970) and chairman (1971-1977). In July 1974 he was appointed to the Australian Council for the Arts, and in 1977 was chairman of its Community Arts Committee.

As his own health began to decline Ross lent his organisational talents to matters of the heart. During the 1970s and 1980s he was Director, Honorary Secretary and National President of the National Heart Foundation of Australia. When an ACT Division was proposed in 1972 he added the responsibility of establishing it and being its first president. In 1988 he founded and subsequently served on the Board of Governors of the Heart Research Institute in Sydney.

Physically, Ross was very tall (193cm) and a good athlete, particularly in running, high jump and broad jump in his younger days, later playing golf and walking until his leg was amputated in 1976. He was also a very likeable man, and cheerfully undertook an immense amount of hard work. A quiet achiever, he was nonetheless proud to have been thought worthy of the inaugural Canberran of the Year award.

Through all this Ross had the support of his wife Phyllis Adele (born 24 January 1915), the eldest daughter of the Reverend Alfred Giles Whitten and his wife Ethel Annie. They married in Sydney on 16 November 1940, and had three sons and a daughter. Phyllis was a former teacher whose community work in Canberra supported the very young and the very old, complementing Ross’s work mainly with the ages in between.

Ross died on 3 March 2003. Phyllis died at Jindalee Nursing Home, Canberra, on 16 June 2012 aged 97; both were cremated at Norwood Park.

Awards and Distinctions

    • 1966 Silver Acorn, for 40 years of service to Scouting (the highest service award)
    • 1967 OBE – for service as Registrar of the Australian National University
    • 1971 Essington Lewis Award for outstanding service to the Industrial Design Council
    • 1975 New conference room in ANU Chancelry named Ross Hohnen Room
    • 1977 Inaugural Canberran of the Year
    • 1985 Silver Kangaroo award for services to the Scout movement
    • 1987 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the community and to youth
    • 1988 John Loewenthal Award for services to the National Heart Foundation
    • 1997 Scout President’s Citation
    • 2005 Hohnen Street, Bruce, ACT named for him


1977 Australia. National Steering Committee on Education and the Arts. Australian Capital Territory Study Group. Education and the arts : a joint study of the Schools Commission and the Australia Council: Australian Capital Territory report. Chairman: R. Hohnen. Canberra : [Australian Schools Commission]

1986 Hohnen, Ross Ainsworth. A cardiovascular research institute : for consideration as a possible Bicentenary initiative by the National Heart Foundation of Australia. [Canberra : The Foundation]

Select Bibliography

1976 'Heart Foundation Warmth of Public Reception Makes Work for Heart Foundation Worthwhile, Founder Says.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 25 November, p. 15, viewed 3 January, 2016,

1977 'Award surprised 'back room' man.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 March, p. 3, viewed 19 November, 2015,

1977 'Canberran of the Year announced.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 March, p. 1, viewed 19 November, 2015,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.