“Big Larry” MacKenzie: A Pictou Academy graduate

Community Featured

Dr. Jock Murray and Janet Murray

For The Advocate

Janet was in the kitchen on High Street, baking peanut butter cookies, in the late stages of pregnancy with our second child. I was in New Glasgow busy doing an obstetrics internship at the Aberdeen Hospital; 1962 seemed a good time to spend the summer in Pictou.

A tall, smiling man came in with my father and greeted Janet, “This is Larry MacKenzie.”

“Would you like some peanut butter cookies with tea.”

“Lovely, and still hot.”

My father and Larry spent the time talking. We were used to visitors who came to talk to George Murray, the editor of the Advocate. We came to know more about Larry as we researched Academy graduates and their accomplishments.

Larry was descended from generations of Scottish farmers, teachers and clergymen who settled in Pictou Country in the 19th century. His pastor father moved to different towns so Norman Archibald MacRae MacKenzie was born in Pugwash in January 1894, but grew up in Thorburn.

Finances for education were difficult for the parents of six children, but he graduated from Pictou Academy before going to farm with his four brothers in Saskatchewan for four years. He entered Dalhousie University in 1913.

During the hazing events at Dalhousie the senior students had the freshmen sing a song. Although he protested that he couldn’t sing, he sang all seven verses of Harry Lauder’s “The Wedding of Lauchie McGraw”. After that the students called him Lauchie, and this soon morphed to Larry, or Big Larry, a nickname that followed him all his life.

After two years at Dalhousie he joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles. In the First World War he was involved in many battles, and as historian Peter Waite said, he miraculously survived repeatedly going over the trenches, earning the Military Cross and Bar, and given a commission in the field. He was the only survivor of his original platoon. During the war he sent back regular descriptions of the war activities for the Dalhousie Gazette.

Returning to Dalhousie was an outstanding leader in many sports and organizations and was elected twice as president of the student council. He took 39 courses to the usual student 20, and worked digging postholes and taking census while earning a law degree. He went on to Harvard, Cambridge, and Grey’s Inn Court in London, specializing in international law. He worked in Geneva as a legal advisor to the League of Nations and other international organizations and was then appointed professor of international law at the University of Toronto.

In 1940 he was appointed president of the University of New Brunswick. Later in the war he was seconded for a year as chairman of the Wartime Information Board and involved in many committees to assess the needs for the post-war era, including his efforts to provide support for the education of returning veterans.

In 1944 he became president of the University of British Columbia. Founded in 1915, UBC was one of the younger universities in Canada, and still in military huts from the Great War. Within a few years MacKenzie had built it into the second largest in the country, second only to the University of Toronto.

Although a towering intellect, he was known for his down-home easy charm, baritone laugh and casual attire. Clyde Gilmore described him in Maclean’s Magazine a few years after he arrived at UBC: “Humour and lustiness and a zestful vigour are in his make-up, but so are calm and dignity and an unassailable Scottish reserve… He is probably the only man of high scholastic distinction in Canada who can also cook flapjacks, rope a steer, sing Scottish ballads, look good in shorts and academic gown. Within a month of arriving at UBC he took the premier out for a game of golf and came back with $5 million for a new university building. He said he was probably the only university president in the world who lives with family in an old army hut with a tar paper roof.”

In the initial years he spoke to hundreds of groups around the province sparking interest and pride in their university. He was as comfortable sitting with groups of farmers as he was with academics and federal politicians. He could convince anyone that the university was not only a group of scholars or a hive of research but most important of all, it was involved in the fabric of society.

The campus was at Point Grey, a beautiful site overlooking the Gulf of Georgia and the mountains. He became not only a wise and influential force in his university but in Canada. He became known in his 18 years as president of UBC as the Lord of Point Grey, the title of Peter Waite’s biography of MacKenzie.

Regarded as the elder statesman for education in the country, he later chaired many boards and fostered many programs. He was chairman of Canada Centenary Council. He was supportive of Dalhousie’s application to have Nova Scotia’s centenary project a new medical school building named for Sir Charles Tupper. He also was on the Massey Commission, and in those discussions was the one who successfully brought forward the idea that government needed to provide federal grants to universities. When Premier Robert Stanfield was trying to see how Nova Scotia should support universities and colleges, he appointed Larry MacKenzie to chair the three-person committee. It was at that time that he was in Pictou talking with my father and enjoying Janet’s tea and peanut butter cookies.

Big Larry’s faculty and students admired his easy style, vision, intelligence and charismatic charm. Everyone was impressed by his ability to transmit his vision and to inspire others. He was comfortable working with farmers, students, politicians, academics and international leaders. He was awarded 21 honorary degrees and there are bronze busts of him at UBC, UNB and Dalhousie. Pictou Academy should remember him as well. From the time he was a student at Pictou Academy and Dalhousie, he was sought out when people wanted a leader; the word would go out — call Big Larry!

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.