By Dr. T. Jock Murray
Shortly after her husband became the editor and publisher of The Pictou Advocate, Nonie Murray began to write two weekly columns, Ann Advocate Says… for the adult readers and The Golden Rule Club, signed by Aunt Betty, for the children.
Previously there had been a column in the Pictou Advocate called “Hints for the Household”, with items from various periodicals, but Nonie’s distinctive style is evident in the column in March 1937. A few weeks later, on April 27, the column was re-named “Ann Advocate Says”. She also announced that the children should also have a column of their own, first called “The Children’s Corner”, and later “The Golden Rule Club”, signed by Aunt Betty.
Some years ago, the late Bruce Murray and his son Sean Murray, the previous and present president and CEO of Advocate Group, gathered together sample columns from each year (1937 to 1974) for a family reunion, and these give a flavour of Ann Advocate’s views and interests over almost four decades. They are also a remarkable record of life in Pictou during those years.
Ann Advocate Says was a breezy commentary on her view of the world, things she was reading, and events in the community. She commented on the news, only occasionally on politics, but mostly her thoughts from what she was reading. A voracious reader, she might reflect on events in the town, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the biography of Benvenuto Cellini or an irritating article in a Halifax paper. The columns were not to display her level of learning (she never attended college) but to chat to her neighbours.
The columns are a history of daily life in Pictou. If you want to know what was going on during the war you could scan the front pages of a major newspaper, but if you are interested in the daily events in the living rooms and kitchens of the community, you should read Ann Advocate’s column during those years. She reflects on the increased role and responsibility of women, the limitations in daily life, such as rationing of sugar and butter, or shortages of clothing materials and buttons, the length of skirts, the infrequency of blondes (hair colouring was hard to obtain) and community drives to collect metal and warm clothing for the war effort. She was a cheerleader for those serving the country but even more supportive of the families at home and their efforts. She recognized the loneliness of the families who moved to Pictou during the war to build Park ships (the population doubled in a few years). She would not only encourage local families to invite these newcomers into their homes but provided advice and recipes on how to feed and entertain them in a time of rationing.
A good writer, she could inform you, taunt you, make you laugh or make you cry. You can see from her columns that Ann Advocate was from the old school that valued high moral principles, good manners, and the golden rule. She could also take on issues in the community, fight for better education for youth, and equality for the black community. She was a friend and supporter of Carrie Best, the black activist. She repeatedly harangued the government with letters decrying some affront to the education system or community programs. She turned up at a Board of Trade meeting to argue that there were no women on the board even though women chaired numerous organizations in the community, led many of the local programs and drives, and were leaders in everything that was happening. Not surprisingly, she was elected the first woman member of the Board of Trade.
She was of the old school when it came to religion, manners, and modesty. She felt gum chewing was an abomination and her advice to a young woman was, “If you must chew gum, chew like a lady. And remember, no lady chews gum.” Overheard on Lowden’s Beach when she sat and entertained many passers-by with bad coffee and good conversation, she was heard to comment on a young teenager with a voluptuous figure in a bikini, “God should not entrust children with bodies of that proportion.”
She continually advocated for the importance of reading, but was often upset about instances of poor grammar, misspellings, and poor writing. She would read the Halifax newspapers with a red pen in hand and mail the corrected copies to their editors.
She regarded the role of homemaker as a vocation on the level of any other, requiring dedication, intelligence, skill, strength, love, hard work, and multi-tasking beyond anything men were doing. She would not accept any slight, particularly from men who might suggest that a woman’s role was not equal.
Raising 10 children, she emphasized household hints that allowed people to do things more efficiently or not at all. Her favourite expression was, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”
She thought Virginia beaten biscuits were ridiculous, requiring hammering the dough with a hammer for 40 minutes. Her review for a peanut butter sauce for vegetables was a simple, “Ugh”. But she would be happy to hear from anyone silly enough to try it.
Usually positive and upbeat in her column, her occasional wrath was saved for anyone who would disparage the role of homemakers, misuse the English language, or lead children astray in any way. She decried repetitious commercials and social norms that just wasted her time. She did not avoid controversy or complaint, often tossing out challenging ideas for readers to answer, and publishing letters that disagreed with her views.
When I was a child, I had a front row seat to the Ann Advocate columns. Believing, with ample evidence, that I needed some improvement in my learning and vocabulary, she would have me sit beside her as she wrote her columns, discussing what she was writing on the long yellow pads of lined paper. Her desk was an old Singer sewing machine table with plywood surface, wrought iron frame and disconnected treadles, on which she rested her feet. The desk was placed by the window in her bedroom where she could look out on the maple trees as she thought and wrote. The floor around her was covered with scattered books, sheets of paper, magazines and newspapers.
She would write a few paragraphs of commentary in her round script, then cut out an item or recipe, glue it on the page and then write more commentary. I have no idea why she selected Ann and Betty as alter egos. She toiled at her sewing machine desk, turning out columns for 37 years, without missing a week, even during the times she was giving birth to 10 children or travelling to Toronto to receive the national award of Mrs. Canadian Weekly Newspaper.
When her husband, George Murray, died in September 1962, she took over his role as editor of the newspaper, assisted by her eldest son, Wallace. In 1969 she moved to Halifax, and for 17 years lived in the historic round music room of the Duke of Kent in Prince’s Lodge. With her red pencil at the ready, she was hired as the assistant editor of Hansard, the official record of the proceedings of the provincial legislature. She continued to write as Ann Advocate, but in her last column in November 20, 1974, she implored people, instead of giving Christmas gifts that people probably don’t need, to donate to a charity which will send a card indicating a generous gift was made in their name.
Nora (Nonie) Wallace Murray, died on September 18, 1986, and is buried beside her husband in Stella Maris cemetery in Pictou. Her columns are a remarkable account of life in Pictou for almost four decades. Her readers called her Ann Advocate. Her friends called her Nonie. I called her Mom.
Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University.