Vale: Ralph Kay Cohen

Valuer, Priest, Author - Obituary

Valuer, Priest, Author
23 September 1932 – 21 August 2012


Reverend Ralph Cohen has died unexpectedly at his home in Numurkah, in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, just shy of the celebrations planned for his 80th birthday.

An outstanding rural valuer, Ralph’s valuation career typified many from the immediate post-war era, and in itself is worthy of examination. What made Ralph unique was that instead of retiring when the Kennett government changed the nature of local government in Victoria in the early 1990s, and jobs were outsourced to competitive tender, Ralph took up a second career as an Anglican priest. The years spent in the ministry were arguably his most rewarding, and it was a disappointment to him when he reached the age of 70, the theoretical retirement age for Anglican clergy. To an observer, however, it did not seem to matter. Ralph continued with his ministry, assisting successive rectors of St George’s in Numurkah, and his role within the local community, right up until his death. He had remarkable faith, and in that sense it is difficult for his friends to mourn him. Celebrate him, and be grateful to have been able to count him as a friend. He never lost his interest in property - or his quirky sense of humour - after he was ordained, and it was in this period that he jointly authored the Australian Property Institute’s bestselling text, Rural Valuation (API, 2009).

Ralph's family heritage was an interesting one. Described at his funeral as being of the Anglo-Jewish tradition, he was born to a Jewish father, Arthur (known as Abe to the family), and his young wife Dorothy, a Presbyterian. Abe’s family had arrived in Australia from England in the early 1900s, their ancestors having originated from Eastern Europe. It is believed that the family had been part of the Jewish diaspora population that had been settled in Lithuania, but as with many others, records have long been lost. Dorothy was from Scottish stock. Her family had settled in Australia in the 1800s. Ralph's upbringing blended the cultural and religious traditions of both sides of his family, with Friday night Shabbat traditions followed by Church and a roast, on Sundays.

Ralph started attending the Anglican Church in Numurkah with his wife, Shirley, and their girls (possibly for good manners) when they first settled in Numurkah, but remained private in regards his own faith out of respect for his Jewish father. After Abe’s death in 1970, Ralph openly embraced his Christian faith and underwent an adult baptism in the Anglican Church in Numurkah. Reflecting the mixed religious and cultural backgrounds of his parents, Ralph had a sensitive understanding and acceptance of diverse belief systems, respecting traditions, and finding the common threads that weave through Jewish and Christian rituals and beliefs.

Ralph spent his early years partly with his parents, in the southern suburbs of Melbourne, and partly at Fairview, Woodfield, near Bonnie Doon in the Upper Goulburn region. This was rugged sheep grazing land that had been selected by his great grandfather, Robert Donaldson. During his primary school years, he lived on the farm for an extended period, having initially moved there to make up numbers at the tiny Woodfield primary school that might have otherwise been closed down. He also spent much of the war years there while his father served in the Australian Army in the Middle East. When Ralph was at Woodfield, he was cared for by his great aunts Jess and Al, and his mother’s cousin, known as Auntie Edie. Edie took the role of second mother to Ralph and there are many ways in which he took after her and was obviously inspired by her. Edie devoted a great deal of her life to work in her local church and supporting the community around Bonnie Doon, and Ralph followed her example. The farm remained a very special place for Ralph throughout his life.

Ralph finished his schooling at Scotch College and then went on to Melbourne University to study Agricultural Science.
After returning to live with his parents in Melbourne, Ralph finished his schooling at Scotch College and then went on to Melbourne University to study Agricultural Science. By his own admission he concentrated more on the extracurricular and social aspects of university life than he did on his academic study. He was very involved in student theatre, and often in cahoots with Barry Humphries and his contemporaries, carrying out various entertainments and student pranks.

Having completed several successful student theatre productions but not the degree he started, he transferred to Dookie Agricultural College, where he completed the Diploma in Agriculture. From there he undertook his valuer training with the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SR&WSC) and studying the then Commonwealth Institute of Valuers course, becoming in time a Fellow of the Australian Property Institute and a Certified Practising Valuer. He practised for four years with the SR&WSC, and was then appointed Group Valuer for various shires in the lower Goulburn Valley, which are now mostly incorporated into the Shire of Moira. He also undertook private practice valuation work in the region. Although his early inspiration was in the Upper Goulburn, he elected to spend most of his adult life in the lower reaches of the Valley, which is part of the vast Murray River flood plains and, for the most part, flat. The Shepparton and Rodney irrigation districts were established from the late nineteenth century, but it was not until the post-war years that the Murray Valley Irrigation district was extended through the Cobram, Numurkah and Nathalia areas. Ralph’s ‘patch’ was therefore predominantly irrigated, although there remained dryland farming in the areas surrounding it. When he first went to the area in the late 1950s, it was a newly settled irrigation district, just through its developmental phase, and moving towards the peak of its productivity. Agricultural commodities, particularly those from the irrigation districts, were in high demand and for a while the region blossomed. He was familiar with all of the properties within the Shires he repeatedly revalued, and analysed every sale over many years. He witnessed the wax and wane of not only property markets, but also commodity markets, which meant that many landholders changed into new and varied production forms. In his later years he also saw all of the debate and change surrounding the long drought, record flooding, and the political issues and debates surrounding the Murray Darling Basin, of which Numurkah forms part, and the issues pertaining to water and its value. He also witnessed the decline in fortune for small irrigation holdings, and the ultimate demise of many properties which simply became uneconomic due to size, market or environmental problems.

In time, Ralph became a Fellow member of the Institute and was widely regarded as one of the leading rural valuers in Victoria
Ralph’s hands-on training at Dookie was an important part of his success as a rural valuer, giving him an immediate ability to understand the nature and use of the land being traded, what constituted level of value, and the subtle differences between properties over a relatively small geographic area. When he studied valuation under the aegis of the Commonwealth Institute of Valuers, all of the tuition was provided by practitioners. So again, the emphasis was weighted to the practical. On-the-job training was provided by a mentoring system, or cadetship, and the SR&WSC boasted an outstanding team of senior valuers who were able to provide training for cadets. It, together with the Valuer General’s Office and the Commonwealth Taxation Office and many local councils, produced many outstanding valuers in the 1960s and 1970s before rationalisation gradually eroded the ability of the offices to provide training. In most cases, over time the offices were themselves wound down, phased out, or replaced by other entities. The final test of professionalism was then, as now, the professional interview or vive voce exam. In time, Ralph became a Fellow member of the Institute and was widely regarded as one of the leading rural valuers in Victoria, and a leader within the country municipal valuation fraternity, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of Ralph’s own cadets from his State Rivers days was Maurice Squirrell, later Associate Professor of Property at RMIT University in Melbourne. His friendship with Maurice lasted for over half a century and it was Maurice who involved Ralph in RMIT’s rural valuer training. Ralph had told Maurice during their first week together that Maurice would only be seen as a successful valuer of irrigated property when he had fallen into a channel or drain for the fifth time. Maurice joined RMIT in 1968 (after only having fallen in twice) and was immediately tasked with setting up an Associateship Diploma in Valuation, to upgrade the then combined Real Estate and Valuation Certificate. He struck on the idea of students spending a week in the Goulburn Valley, visiting farms and valuing them for differing purposes, using recent sales. The trip almost foundered in its second year, when based at the Victoria Hotel in Shepparton. Subsequently, however, accommodation was sourced at Dookie Agricultural College, east of Shepparton. It continued for more than 40 years. Ralph’s involvement was from the beginning, initially setting up two days’ exercises. In time, he joined the trip for the entire six days, providing guidance to students as well as setting up the two days’ exercises. The trip evolved over time, and for a decade another trip was organised in the previous year of the course, looking to farm management in the Western, Wimmera and Mallee districts of Victoria. Ralph came along on this tour as well for a number of years, again providing expert assistance to the students in order for them to develop a better understanding of what they were looking at. While these trips were primarily learning exercises aimed at improving the understanding of rural valuation, it was recognised by the many staff who were involved in the running of them that they also gave students the ability to think outside the square in terms of their understanding of valuation theory. In that way, they were able to further explore what it meant to be a valuer. For many years, the trips were self-contained, with little work other than report writing to be done when students returned to Melbourne. These were long days, and Ralph stayed up until almost all of the students had finished their valuations. It was on these trips that the genesis of the text Rural Valuation was formed.

In 1994, the Australian Property Institute recognized his professional achievements, including his long association with the student excursions, and awarded him with the S.F. Whittington Award for meritorious and significant contribution to the valuation and land economy profession.

Over the years, Ralph’s Christian faith developed beyond what might be expected of a lay parishioner. He completed his Diploma in Theology largely by correspondence, and was then ordained a Deacon in Wangaratta Cathedral in 1989. He was ordained in St George’s Church, Numurkah, in 1994. He never had a parish of his own, but assisted in the Numurkah parish. Whilst this was to the detriment of a parish in the diocese, not having Ralph as rector, it was to the benefit of Numurkah. It was clear at the concelebrated funeral mass that he was held in great esteem in his home parish, and was an important part of the working of the parish over a number of years.

Ralph’s physique meant that he was not really the sporting type, however he did enjoy fencing. It was at the University Fencing Club that he first met his future wife, Shirley, when he was 20 and she 19. Poking swords at each other was clearly not the ideal start for a romantic relationship as the friendship remained purely platonic for several years! Soon after settling in Numurkah for his work, however, he and Shirley rekindled their friendship when Ralph asked Shirley out to dinner. They were engaged soon after, and then married in St John’s Anglican Church in Camberwell in 1964. Ralph and Shirley wasted little time in starting a family - Janet was born in 1965, and then Margie in 1968.

In addition to his professional careers and family, Ralph also had a great interest in wine and the theatre. He was involved in the Numurkah Singers for many years, taking charge of the stage lighting. He felt that his involvement with the Singers was a practical way for him to pursue his love of the theatre. His love of red wine was legendary and a cellar was quickly dug in his Numurkah backyard early in his marriage.

Ralph leaves behind his widow Shirley, daughters Janet and Margie, their husbands Rick and Tom, and grandchildren Molly, Thomas, Caitlin and Alexander. He also leaves behind many friends, and memories, within the Australian Property Institute, Victorian Division, an important educational legacy, and a perpetual mark on the parish of St George in Numurkah.

Compiled by James Baxter, LFAPI, Janet Drury-Cohen, Margie Cohen and Maurice Squirrell, LFAPI.