The Pictou Academy graduate who saved Dalhousie

Community Featured

By Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray

For The Advocate

George Munro, a graduate of Pictou Academy, has been recognized by Dalhousie University every year for the last 140 years by a holiday called Munro Day.

So, who was Monro, and why does he rate the unusual honour of a university holiday each February? And why is he called “the saviour of Dalhousie” and the “second founder of Dalhousie”, even though he never attended Dalhousie as a student or taught there as a professor?

George Monro was born in West River, just outside Pictou, on 12 November 1825. He apprenticed as a printer’s assistant on the Pictou Observor at age 12 but later attended Pictou Academy, just after Thomas McCulloch left the Academy to become the first principal of Dalhousie College. At age 19, Monro became a teacher at Pictou Academy, and then at the Free Church Academy in Halifax, where two years later he became principal. He gave up his plan to become a minister when he gave his first sermon. He found it such a frightening and depressing experience, he vowed he would never do this again. Because he had made many improvements in the Academy his supporters were disappointed when he announced he was leaving for New York in 1856. He used health as an excuse, but he was really embarking on a new direction in his life.

In New York he was employed by Appleton’s publishing firm where he learned the basics of magazine and mail order book publishing. He moved to Irwin P. Beadle and Company who were a major publisher of dime novels and he rose quickly in the business, becoming a co-owner. He started a weekly family paper with serialized stories, The Fireside Companion, that had an audience throughout the USA and also in Nova Scotia. He began a series called Monro’s Ten Cent Novels which earned him a huge fortune. The dime novels, which began about 1860, became very popular, and Monro introduced stories about the first detective in this genre, The Old Sleuth. The Old Sleuth stories were so popular, he made them a separate publication. He also published Seaside Library, which reprinted inexpensive versions of British books, as they didn’t have a copyright in the USA. He had a publication list of 2,500 novels, history, and travel books. All of this gave him a fortune, and as a hard-working businessman, he moved into further areas, buying a large printing plant and expanding into New York real estate.

He made frequent trips back to Nova Scotia where he met and married Catherine Forrest, sister of Rev. John Forrest, a native of New Glasgow. In 1979, ill from his exhausting work, Monro took a prolonged rest in Halifax, living with his brother-in law, who at the time was on Dalhousie’s board of governors. In their discussions, Forrest told Monro of the desperate state of Dalhousie’s finances, and that the college might have to close its doors. The government grant was cancelled, the college funds were not generating much interest, and student fees were inadequate to keep the institution going. There was also an immediate need for a replacement for the professorship in physics. Monro replied, “If you will find the man… I will find the money.” He provided funds to endow a chair with an annual income of $2,000, a reasonable salary for the time, about $55,000 in today’s money. (The Premier of Nova Scotia earned $2,500 per year.)

On a later visit Forrest told him the professor of rhetoric and history died. Munro approached the Dalhousie Board and said he would fund another chair if John Forrest would resign his ministry and accept the role as professor of history. Dalhousie was saved again. The appointment of Forrest was not just a favour to a family friend, as Forrest was a distinguished intellect and would, in a few years, be appointed Dalhousie’s third president. Actually, the first two, Thomas McCulloch from Pictou Academy and Rev. James Ross from West River, Pictou County, where Monro was born, were called principals but Forrest asked for the title of president.

Monro began to provide more support, the equivalent of $10 million today, eventually funding chairs in physics, English literature, history, law and philosophy.

Monro also wished to assist students and in 1881 he provided $83,000 for bursaries to entering students. Most initially went to Pictou Academy graduates. Also, in that year Dalhousie College and the Halifax Medical College opened admissions to women, taking Pictou Academy as the model for co-education. The first two women admitted to Dalhousie both had Monro bursaries. In the next years, half of the women students would hold Monro bursaries. This university gift was unprecedented in the nation. As George Grant, a native of Stellarton, a former Dalhousie Board member, and then president of Queen’s University, indicated that Monro not only saved the university but stemmed the tide of bright Nova Scotian students going elsewhere for their education.

Monro was a shy, quiet man, uninterested in honours or accolades, but he was appreciative of the student response. In 1881 the students approached the Dalhousie Board with a petition to have a day proclaimed in his honour. The board agreed and proclaimed a George Monro Memorial Day, an odd title as he was still very much alive. The celebrations in the first years were a holiday, with a nine-mile sleigh ride for a formal dinner at the Bedford Hotel. The 1883 Dalhousie Gazette indicated that the 50 students and professors climbed aboard four large sleighs for a drive to the dinner, at a time when the total student population was only 66. In later years the month to celebrate Munro Day varied but now is the first Friday in February. The day is now a quiet holiday, but in past years was often accompanied by variety shows, ski trips, sporting events, sing-songs, plays and other activities.

Monro died in 1896. In his last years he was mostly involved in his real estate ventures. One of his apartment buildings overlooking Central Park was named Dalhousie.

Even during the pandemic, and with students mostly working online, Monro Day is still observed as a holiday for the entire university, recognizing his role as a saviour of an institution he never attended, in the home province he loved.

Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is the former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.