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Tuesday December 20, 2011

Publisher believed in sacred trust between his paper and province

The Chronicle Herald in Halifax remains one of the last independent dailies in Canada

Special to The Globe and Mail

Often referring to himself as "just a humble peddler" of papers, Graham Dennis never wavered from his deeply-held belief that his beloved newspaper be an independent voice and a champion of Nova Scotians' interests.

Dennis, who served as owner and publisher of The Chronicle Herald for 57 years, was proud that his newspaper was one of the last true independent dailies in Canada. He received many offers to buy it, but he rejected them all with a polite response: "I'll put you on the list." He honoured what he called the "sacred trust" that existed between his paper and the province he fiercely promoted and loved.

"He had an incredible passion for Nova Scotia that was matched by an insatiable curiosity about how to make Nova Scotia better," said Liberal MP Scott Brison. "The Herald was his lifelong love letter to Nova Scotia. He saw The Herald as a vehicle to strengthen and defend Nova Scotia."

Today, The Herald, which is read by close to 300,000 Nova Scotians daily, is delivered to every town and village in the province.

Dennis, who died in Halifax on Dec. 1 at age 84, was born into the newspaper business in 1927. When his father Senator William Henry Dennis died in 1954, Dennis became the third generation of his family to publish the Nova Scotia daily. He was just 26. His great-uncle Senator William Dennis ran the paper before his father. Dennis's daughter Sarah Dennis carries on the family tradition and currently serves as chief executive officer of The Halifax Herald Ltd.

As a small boy, Dennis would get up early to fetch the paper for his dad. "I'd climb into bed with father to go over the headlines," he once said in an interview. At five, he started selling newspapers and after graduating from McGill University he began working full-time at the paper. "I'm not a writer, but I think I know where news is," Dennis said in an interview with The Herald. He prided himself on being "in the know" about what was going on not only within his newspaper, but throughout the province.

As publisher, he would frequently crisscross the province to visit new businesses, or to talk with politicians and "the common man" about what was happening in their communities. He rarely returned without some story ideas. If he didn't want to reveal his sources, an editor was told it was "a tip from my pet snake Beulah."

Former Nova Scotia Tory MP Bill Casey often had unexpected visits from Dennis at his constituency office in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester- Musquodoboit Valley. An eccentric, formal man, who rarely went out in public without his three-piece suit, Dennis would arrive with his driver, for a meeting that could last two hours and cover everything from the local economy, to social issues and politics.

"He was genuinely interested in everything that was going on in the province," said Casey. "He would come around even if there was no burning issue at the time. He was just fact finding."

On one of his last visits to Brison's riding in the Annapolis Valley, Dennis visited a business in the Minas Basin to discuss tidal power, something he was keenly interested in. "He realized that Nova Scotians always needed champions," said Brison.

Said to have turned down the Senate three times, Dennis could have had a successful political career, but believed his calling was as a newspaper proprietor. "The principal reason he declined multiple opportunities to go into politics was that he felt his public service to Nova Scotia was to keep a Nova Scotia owned and managed paper as an independent voice for Nova Scotia," said Brison.

When Dennis became publisher in 1954, the company's publications were the morning Chronicle-Herald and the afternoon Mail-Star, the result of the 1948 merger of the Dennis family's Herald and Mail papers with the Chronicle and Star titles published by F.B. McCurdy, according to The Herald. While The Herald had been for the Conservatives and The Chronicle for the Liberals, the merger ended an era in Nova Scotia when newspapers were politically affiliated and partisan. "We took it from a Tory paper to an independent paper," Dennis said in an interview. When pressed for his own political affiliation, his favourite response was, "I'm a troublemaker."

"He was not partisan," said Brison. "He would support politicians and leaders who he felt were good for Nova Scotia regardless of political stripe."

Until recently Dennis had daily contact with all departments at the newspaper. He rarely spent time away from the office and was known to call the newsroom regularly in the evening with his famous "Who's in charge?" to find out what was running on the next day's front page. In all his years as publisher, he was said to have never requested that a story be kept out of the paper. Jane Purves, a former managing editor of the paper, who was often greeted by Dennis with, "What's new my dear?" remembers him once asking her if a story could be moved from the front page to page two. When she said "no" he didn't push the matter. "He would call several times a day to find out what was going on, but he didn't interfere," she said.

When asked what he considered to be his proudest achievement, he would often say it was helping his father create a company pension plan for their employees. "The greatest thing I ever did was the pension fund because of the security and the assurance people would have something for their families," he said in an interview.

Being a quiet, formal man who avoided the spotlight made him the "antithesis of today's media mogul," said Ian Thompson, associate publisher of The Chronicle Herald. "He wouldn't talk about meeting the Pope or the Queen or his honorary degrees. Ultimately, he would default to his relationship with his staff."

One of Dennis's heroes was Father Moses Coady, founder of the Antigonish Movement which promoted adult education, co-operatives, microfinance and rural community development. In 2007, he gave a $1-million donation to the Coady International Institute in Antigonish, N.S. Throughout his life he gave generously to charities and universities, often anonymously. "He recognized that he was privileged and he never took it for granted," said Brison.

After his son, William, died tragically in 2002 at age 30 following complications associated with an epileptic seizure, Dennis and his family gave $2.3-million to establish the William Dennis Chair in Pediatric Epilepsy Research at Dalhousie University.

Dennis, who received the Order of Canada in 1984, leaves his wife Gay, daughters Heather and Sarah; four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, William; first wife, Ann, who died of cancer, and sister Pauline.

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