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Photo of Francess Halpenny
Francess Halpenny. Photo courtesy of U of T Archives and Robert Lansdale Photography

Editor Extraordinaire

Francess Halpenny helped turn U of T into an academic publishing powerhouse

When Francess Halpenny – a long-time senior editor at U of T Press and an editorial force behind the Dictionary of Canadian Biography – was a high school student in Toronto, she barely scraped through the mathematics requirements, but she excelled at English. With a scholarship, she enrolled at University College in 1936 in a newly created English language and literature program, where she became enamoured with 19th-century literature.

Halpenny, who died in December at the age of 98, would go on to use her impressive English skills to help cement the University of Toronto as a centre of academic publishing. After graduating in 1940, she joined U of T Press in 1941, performing editorial roles there for almost half a century and shepherding into print such important works as Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. She built a team of highly skilled editors, says Ian Montagnes, one-time editor-in-chief of the press, “but she believed that the editor’s work should be invisible.”

Halpenny’s biggest mark in publishing may have been as the editorial director of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, a highly ambitious, bilingual project developed by U of T Press and Laval University. Its first volume was published in 1966, and Halpenny took over as general editor in 1969, steering its operations until 1988.

In parallel with her editorial work, Halpenny served as dean of the Faculty of Library Science (now the Faculty of Information) for six years in the mid-1970s – and was “an incredible force of nature,” says current dean Wendy Duff. While Halpenny was dean, she had lunch with every student in the faculty (usually in small groups) to make sure she got to know each one, says Duff. “She touched the lives of every single student.”

Halpenny also had a storied life outside the university: early in her career, she left U of T Press for a time to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. After basic training, she was posted to a meteorological office north of St. John’s where she issued weather forecasts to help guide Allied aircraft and warships. “I felt very strongly that everybody’s effort was needed,” she said.

As an undergrad, Halpenny developed a love of theatre, joining the UC Players’ Guild and performing at Hart House Theatre. She remained deeply interested in the arts throughout her life. She would take her nieces and nephews to the Stratford Festival. She also set up accounts for them at Britnell’s bookstore in Toronto so they could pick up books whenever they wanted, says her niece Jane Loughborough.

Her nieces and nephews were only vaguely aware of Halpenny’s importance in the publishing industry, says Loughborough. Eventually, however, as accolades began to roll in, including 11 honorary degrees and the Order of Canada, it became clear to the family how highly she was regarded. “We had a sense of her stature and her interests, but not of the accolades. She was so humble.”

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