For more than 130 years, Dalhousie has celebrated a man named George Munro, a publisher of cheap books in the 1870s and 80s.
That may not seem like the sort of career that would warrant an annual holiday on Dal’s Halifax campuses.* But Munro’s name continues to resonate more than a century after his time because his generosity not only kept Dal alive during one of the more trying times in its history, but he sparked a tradition of giving to the university that you can see in Dal’s Bold Ambitions campaign today.
So in honour of Munro Day, here’s a few facts to share with your friends when they’re asking just what the deal is with Dal’s February holiday:
1. Munro’s first annual gift was akin to an elite salary at the time. Munro's first gift — inspired by a push from his brother-in-law and Dal Board of Governors member John Forrest — was $2,000 a year to fund a chair in physics. That astonished the university admin, because it was almost as much as the annual salary for the premier of Nova Scotia at the time ($2,400). Munro then funded four more chairs, and donated thousands for bursaries. During the first half of the 1880s, for example, half of Dalhousie’s 25 female graduates were supported by his donations.
2. George Munro’s donations totaled $330,000. That may not seem like a lot, but it would be more than $8 million today adjusted for inflation. And it wasn’t just the dollar figure that warranted acclaim, but the timing. 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 gifts almost certainly saved the institution.
3. The idea for Munro Day came from Dal students. It wasn’t the university administration’s idea to have a holiday to honour George Munro’s gift: it was the Dalhousie Student Union who made the request. In 1881, its members asked the administration for a winter holiday in Munro’s honour, and Munro Day was born.
4. Munro Day hasn’t always been in February. In fact, it’s moved around quite a bit: it was originally in January, and in the 1890s it was even moved into November. For most of Dal’s history, though, it’s been celebrated on the first Friday of February.
5. It’s always been a big day for outdoor activities. 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. These days, the DSU organizes an annual ski trip to mark the occasion, keeping the outdoors-y spirit of the holiday alive. (That said, there have often been Munro Day dances, dinners and other less snowy endeavours.)
*Why no Munro Day in Truro? The Faculty of Agriculture’s academic calendar for this year was set prior to its merger into Dal, meaning Munro Day is not yet recognized there. That said: unlike in Halifax, the Agricultural Campus does have Easter Monday as a holiday this year.
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