Most Dal students, staff and faculty know the name “Munro” well; it’s right there on the academic calendar in the form of Munro Day, Dal’s beloved university-wide holiday each February. But how many know much about the man behind the holiday, George Munro (1825 – 1896), who helped save the university from closure in the late 19th century?
Munro’s role in keeping the university’s doors open isn’t hyperbole. In the 1870s, Dal was in dire financial straits. According to 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.”
In the summer of 1879, John Forrest, Munro’s brother-in-law and Dal board member, told Munro that the university’s most pressing need was to find the money to fund a new chair in Physics. Munro’s quiet response: “If you will find the man . . . I will find the money.”
They found the man (J.G. MacGregor) and Munro found a $2,000 per year gift, an astonishing amount for the time. (The premier of Nova Scotia only made $2,400 annually.) The university’s Board of Governors was shocked, exclaiming: “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.”
Munro would go on to endow chairs in History, in English Literature and in Rhetoric, Law, and Philosophy. He also donated $83,000 in bursaries, some of which went to support several of Dal’s first female graduates. All told, Munro donated about $330,000 to the university, equivalent to about $10 million today.
So how did he “find” all that money? He was a man of words — cheap, discount words. Born in West River, Nova Scotia, Munro was a teacher at the Free Church Academy in Halifax before moving to New York City in 1856 to make his fortune in publishing. Within 10 years, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming owner of Irwin P. Beadle and Company, a popular producer of dime novels, songbooks and cheap handbooks.
But throughout, he remained passionate about education, as his career and gifts to Dal demonstrate. Munro died in 1896, mere days prior to Dalhousie’s convocation ceremonies that year. Reverend Robert Murray, a Dal governor, paid tribute to Munro, describing him as “a true educationist and the patron of education.
“He opened to many a deserving youth the glorious portals of knowledge and made possible careers of incalculable usefulness,” said the Reverend. “You, ladies and gentlemen of Dalhousie, you and your predecessors and successors have the name of George Munro engraved upon your grateful hearts and souls. In your gratitude and love he has a precious monument which rust cannot corrode, and which the sharp tooth of time can never mar.”