That’s how Senator James Cowan, former chair of Dal’s Board of Governors, referred to W. Andrew MacKay when asked to share his thoughts on the university’s eighth president last summer.
“From being an outstanding student, a great athlete and then a professor, a senior administrator and president, that’s a marvellous career and he represents the best of Dalhousie,” said Cowan.
MacKay, unquestionably one of the most prominent figures in Dalhousie’s history, passed away suddenly on Saturday in Halifax. He was 83.
President Tom Traves called MacKay a great Dalhousian.
“He was a gifted, kind man and he enjoyed an extraordinary career,” said Dr. Traves. “He will be missed by many people who greatly respected him.”
In an email to the law school community, Kim Brooks, dean of the Schulich School of Law, reflected on a gift MacKay presented her with last year: a copy of "The University," a piece authored by John Masefield that considers the spirit of full and fair inquiry which defines the academic endeavour. It now hangs on her wall, just as it did during MacKay's time with the law school.
"W. Andrew MacKay made a remarkable contribution to our school and to the university as a whole," wrote Dean Brooks. "He was, in the fullest sense, a champion of the university – both Dalhousie specifically and the broader idea of the university as a place where we test ideas and explore hard questions."
A Dalhousie legacy
MacKay, known for his modesty and sense of humour, once described himself as “Sort of a Jack of many trades, but a master of none.” Those who worked with him during his impressive career may well contest the second part of that.
He was a three-time Dal alumnus, earning a Bachelor of Arts in 1950, a Bachelor of Laws in 1953 and a Master of Laws in 1954. (He also received an honorary degree from Dal in 2003.) He came from a Dalhousie family as well: his father, Robert, was the Eric Dennis Memorial Professor of Government and Political Science at Dal for many years, and his older sister Mary (BA’49) also attended Dal.
He began his studies at a time when many of his older classmates were veterans of the Second World War.
“You got a sense of the larger world,” said MacKay, in an interview with Dal’s External Relations office last year. “These guys had had extraordinary experiences. They were older and they were always helpful.”
He excelled in the classroom and on the field and court. He was captain of the football team, which won Nova Scotia’s prestigious Purdy Cup in 1951. He also played basketball for the Tigers. (He was inducted into the Dalhousie Sport Hall of Fame in 2008.)
He also met his wife Alexa while at Dal, on a blind date at Shirreff Hall. Last year, the couple celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.
Returning to campus
After completing his Master of Laws degree, MacKay became a foreign service officer. He was just about to pack up and head overseas to London with his family when the dean of Dalhousie’s law school called with an invitation for MacKay to return to campus and teach.
MacKay eventually would become dean of law, followed by vice-president academic of Dal and, finally, president and vice-chancellor from 1980-86.
“[I] tried to keep an open mind about things and to listen to people,” he said of his time at Dal’s helm. In Peter Waite's book The Lives of Dalhousie, MacKay is described as being a "patient, hard-working and cool-headed" leader.
The university faced difficult financial times during MacKay’s tenure, confronting deficits stemming from campus expansions in the 1970s. MacKay led a major capital campaign that went on to raise $35 million for the school.
Even while president, MacKay’s commitment to serving his province and his community remained steadfast. His chief cause was human rights, and he was the first chair of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, a position he held from 1967-86.
“The great thing about the human rights commission work for me was that the emphasis I was able to bring to it — [and] it wasn’t only me — was an educational emphasis,” he said. “We did, I think, the most useful work in its time in Canada in terms of public school education programs with minority people coming into the schools for the first time, talking with students about their problems.”
He also chaired the Nova Scotia Task Force on AIDS in the late 1980s, which was struck following the controversy surrounding Nova Scotia elementary schoolteacher Eric Smith. Smith lost his teaching job when his community learned that he was HIV positive, leading to widespread debate and discussion.
“We were shouted down in some schools in the province,” said MacKay. “We travelled all over the province. We tried in all this to present them with the facts that were then known about HIV and AIDS and the facts of the Eric Smith case.”
A thoughtful leader
After finishing his time as president in 1986, MacKay continued to have a storied career. He became the ombudsman for the Province of Nova Scotia, and in 1988 he was appointed to the Federal Court of Canada, where he served until his retirement in 2004. After retiring, he stayed with the court as a deputy judge and advisor to the justice minister.
This past fall, at Homecoming weekend, MacKay was presented with the Dalhousie University Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Taking stock of his time at Dal and beyond, he offered his thoughts on how he approached his impressive career.
“A thinking — I hope ‘thoughtful’ — Canadian trying to do something in this world.”
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