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A top editor with the University of Toronto Press, she spent two decades working on the monumental Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Monday, January 15, 2018 – Page B18

Francess Halpenny, who died on Christmas Day at the age of 98, was a powerhouse in the world of letters in Canada. She was a top editor with the University of Toronto Press at a time when the esteemed publishing house was expanding its international reputation; she was editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and received the Molson Prize for her work there; and if that wasn't enough, she was a professor at the University of Toronto and dean of its Faculty of Library Science.

Ms. Halpenny was also a war veteran. She volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 and served at a weather station in Newfoundland, tracking weather patterns in the North Atlantic, which provided invaluable help to the navy and pilots ferrying planes from Newfoundland to Britain. Since 2013, she lived at the veterans' wing of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, in Toronto.

Francess Georgina Halpenny was born in Ottawa on May 27, 1919, to Viola Gertrude (née Westman) and James Leroy Halpenny. The family lived in the village of Maxwell, just outside the city. When she was in Grade 4, they moved to Toronto, where Francess discovered the joys of the public library.

"I, of course, got a library card and I visited the Yorkville branch almost every Saturday, taking out books for myself, and also for my mother," she wrote in her memoir, A World of Words, written and published in the last year of her life.

She went to Brown Public School, Oakville Collegiate and the University of Toronto. She thrived at university, and made a foray into the theatre, among other things performing in a play with Mavor Moore, the actor and critic.

When she graduated in 1940, with a master's in English language and literature, one of her friends in the university dramatic society told her of an opening at the University of Toronto Press. She worked there for a year and a half before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force. She was worried she would be rejected because of her poor eyesight, but as an educated woman she was chosen for meteorological duty and posted to Torbay, Nfld.

Weather forecasts would be used by Allied warships and RCAF patrol aircraft in their search for German submarines in the North Atlantic.

"One of our crews destroyed one of the [German] submarines. So this is why the weather was very important; to get it as accurate as possible so you could carry out your duties as protector of convoys," Ms. Halpenny wrote. Later she was transferred to another station at Summerside, PEI.

After the war, she returned to the U of T Press.

One of her first assignments was editing The Government of Canada, by the formidable political scientist R. MacGregor Dawson. She was not intimidated.

"He was a wonderful man with a big voice, who once said 'this young woman is raking me over the coals,' " she wrote.

Ms. Halpenny was appointed managing editor of U of T Press in 1965. In 1978, she was promoted to associate director (academic) and she remained in that role until 1984. During her many years at the university publishing arm, she had a sharp eye for new talent. Many of the young graduates she hired went on to prominent positions in publishing.

"She was a very sensible person who believed in balance in personal life and teamwork in professional life," said Rosemary Shipton, who was hired by Ms. Halpenny in the fall of 1968.

"An example of balance is she didn't approve of taking manuscripts home. She thought people should do that during work hours and have a separate personal life, as she did. Her range of outside interests was enormous."

Teamwork meant leaving the credit for the author, not the editor. "She did not believe editors should be mentioned in the author's acknowledgments," Ms. Shipton said. "She was firm and spartan in her approach."

An editor's work is hidden behind the books we read. An author may hand in a disorganized mishmash that has to be restructured and corrected. Ms. Halpenny believed editors should stay in the background. She also felt the job of editing scholarly books was different from, say, editing fiction.

"Editors at a scholarly press are not like all editors. You are not an expert in the field necessarily, although you have an acquaintance with it. What you are there to do is to make sure that things are expressed clearly and consistently and that the quotations are properly handled."

Ms. Halpenny was certainly recognized as a star in the editing world: She received 11 honorary doctorates from universities in five provinces; was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and bumped up to companion in 1984. "Francess built an editorial department that was without peer in Canada," said Ian Montagnes, her onetime colleague who went on to become editor-in-chief of the University of Toronto Press.

Along with her work at the U of T Press, Ms. Halpenny was a professor and in 1972 became dean of the Faculty of Library Science, serving in that role for six years.

From the late sixties to the late eighties, she took on the task of co-editing the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. It is an ambitious project, which remains ongoing, to produce volumes dealing with historical figures in Canada's past. It a joint publication of the University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l'Université Laval.

The editing and fact-checking are meticulous.

"If something is cited as a fact in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, you can depend on it," Ms. Shipton said.

Mr. Montagnes described the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as: "The most ambitious bilingual publishing project in Canadian history. There is nothing like it. There are hundreds of authors, each writing in French and English."

Throughout her life, Ms. Halpenny was a serious amateur actor, performing in plays that were part of the Dominion Drama Festival. When she was in her 40s, she played an older woman with such conviction that the judges were surprised that she was, in fact, decades younger, recalls her cousin, Elizabeth Wilson, who also worked at the U of T as director of information.

"Another of her major roles was in [George Bernard Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days], where she acted with John Colicos in a production by the University Alumnae Drama Club," Ms. Wilson said.

"[Ms. Halpenny] was a member of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival from the day the tent went up, and attended plays there for over 50 years. ... The last performance I took her to was King Lear, starring Colm Feore," her niece Jane Loughborough said.

Ms. Halpenny never learned to type, in part because she was of a generation where if women learned to type, no matter what their education, they might be forced to be secretaries. Her manuscripts were corrected in a large, clear, hand.

Ms. Halpenny leaves her younger brother, Arthur, and sister-in-law, Dora, as well as a large extended family, including nieces, nephews and cousins, who knew her as Aunt Francess.

Associated Graphic

Editor Francess Halpenny poses with several volumes of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography - an ambitious project that she co-edited - in her office in 1972.


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