George Munro's legacy
Celebrating Munro Day
Ryan McNutt - February 2, 2012
It’s that time of year again – when the Dalhousie community gets to take a much needed long weekend in February.
And it’s all thanks to a 19th-century benefactor who saved the university from certain financial peril.
Who was George Munro?
A publisher of cheap books in the late 1870s and during the 1880s, George Munro was born in West River, Pictou County, Nova Scotia, the fourth of twelve children. After teaching at the Free Church Academy in Halifax, he left Nova Scotia permanently for New York City in 1856 and eventually worked for Irwin P. Beadle and Company, a firm that published popular songbooks, handbooks, and the first dime novels. After the company folded, he entered into the business himself and became rather wealthy.
Back in Halifax, Dalhousie was struggling. According to Dal historian P. B. Waite, "Desperate is not too strong a word for Dalhousie's financial condition. Talk of closing Dalhousie down was heard on every side." The school’s government grant was set to expire, and investment income was not generating enough funds to keep the fledgling school running.
Munro’s brother-in-law, John Forrest, was minister of St. John's Church in Halifax and a member of Dalhousie’s Board of Governors. He encouraged Munro do what he could to help; Munro told Forrest, "If you will find the man for the chair of Physics, I will find the money." The largeness of Munro's gift—$2,000 a year—astonished the university's Board of Governors – even the premier of Nova Scotia earned only $2,400 a year.
After establishing the first chair in physics, awarded to J. G. MacGregor, Munro created four more in the years that followed. One of these was Dalhousie’s first chair in law, and it was Munro who personally recommend that Richard Weldon serve as the first dean of the new law school. He also donated $83,000 in bursaries and exhibitions; during the first half of the 1880s, half of Dalhousie’s 25 women graduates were supported by his donations.
In total, Munro donated approximately $330,000 to the university – more than $8 million in current funds.
In expressing its appreciation, the Board of Governors exclaimed: "Mr. Munro's liberality is on a scale that is without parallel in the educational history not of Nova Scotia alone but of the Dominion of Canada."
Defining a Dal holiday
According to P. B. Waite’s book The Lives of Dalhousie, the idea for a holiday to honour Munro came from Dalhousie's students, who made the request in 1881.
The holiday hasn’t always been in February, though: it was originally in January, and even moved to November in the 1890s. For much of its history, though, Dalhousie has celebrated Munro Day on the first Friday of February.
These days, the Dalhousie Student Union often hosts a road trip to one of Nova Scotia’s ski hills. The idea of spending the holiday in the snow is nothing new: in the 1880s, the highlight of Munro Day was a nine-mile sleigh ride to a Bedford hotel for a fancy dinner. In 1883, the Gazette reported that more than 50 students and profs took part in the event, out of a total school enrolment of 66.
Sometimes, though, the activities moved indoors. In the 1890s, the sleigh ride gave way to an “At Home” celebration. Dalhousie’s facilities—what is today the Forrest Building on Carleton campus—were opened to some 700 guests from across Halifax. There was a formal receiving line, guests were duly announced, and the entire building was decorated in black and gold bunting.
And while there’s bound to be plenty of “black and gold” pride at the ski hills tomorrow, let’s hope it’s in the fashion choices and spirit, not in any bumps and bruises.
With files from P. B. Waite's The Lives of Dalhousie and Lydia Cushman Schurman's "Three Canadian-Born Publishers of Popular Literature and Their Effect on Nineteenth-Century Publishing in the United States."