About 100 people gathered at North York Central Library on November 14 to celebrate the life of Sharon Fitzhenry (above), the president and CEO of Fitzhenry & Whiteside, who died on August 26 at age seventy-three. Her firm was founded by her father, Robert Fitzhenry, and included the imprints Fifth House, Red Deer Press, and Whitecap Books.
Two nights later, about 100 people gathered at Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club to celebrate the life of Kirk Howard (below), former owner of Dundurn Press, who died June 30 at the age of eighty. He founded Dundurn in 1972 and, like Sharon, devoted the whole of his working life to the Canadian book trade.
Several people spoke at each celebration. There was substantial crossover among the attendees and I doubt I was the only one to note similarities in the stories told of the departed. Kirk and Sharon were both highly intelligent, somewhat shy individuals to whom the business of making and selling books was all-consuming, the only thing they ever wanted to do. They were hardworking, innovative, stubborn, and fiercely proud of their respective companies, with justification: Dundurn and Fitz & Witz have been mainstays of the industry for half a century, publishing thousands of titles and advancing the careers of hundreds of people. Through what will probably go down as the most successful half century in the history of Canadian publishing, they mattered.
I had the pleasure of meeting both Sharon and Kirk late in their careers. We were introduced by mutual friends. They were both excellent company. We had long, enlightening, and collegial discussions that formed a big part of my publishing education. Like so many in this industry, they were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge.
It was happenstance that their celebrations were so close together, given that Sharon and Kirk passed months apart, but it heightened the sense last week that we were witnessing more than the end of two great publishing careers—it felt like something epochal. Fortunately, Dundurn continues to publish under new ownership and Fitzhenry & Whiteside is in the capable hands of Sharon’s sister and partner, Holly Doll.
Holly spoke about Sharon at the North York Central Library. Beth Bruder, a long-time executive at Dundurn, spoke about Kirk at the Arts & Letters Club. Both kindly permitted us to share their remarks with SHuSH readers.
Beth Bruder on Kirk Howard:
I’m Beth Bruder, a friend and admirer of Kirk, who I worked with for twenty years.
A true gentleman with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour, Kirk was both a creator and a survivor of Canadian publishing.
Publishing books formed Kirk’s life and gave him real joy, along with a great deal of heartache, which all creative industries provide in spades. Many of you will understand this from your own personal publishing experiences.
Kirk invested both financially and emotionally in every book he published. Publishing is a gambling business and every book he chose, he gambled it would succeed, even though the market and history tells us that most books don’t. Yet that didn’t deter him. He always had enough winners to pay his employees, to pay his printing and distribution costs, cover the rent and, most importantly, pay advances and royalties to over 2,000 authors. A lot of people achieved their dreams because Kirk chose to bet on them.
But Kirk’s goal as a publisher wasn’t just to give others opportunities. He used his publishing program to tell a story—a story that fascinated him his entire life, and one that was mostly untold when he started Dundurn Press in 1972. That was the story of Canada.
He had been a teacher at Lambton College up until that point—where he had originated and taught a new discipline called Canadian Studies— when he had a fortuitous meeting with legendary publisher Jack McClelland, who inspired him to chuck a steady pay cheque and becae a gambler just like him.
When I asked him why he took this huge risk, he said he thought how hard could it be? You print books and sell them…
When choosing a name for his new venture, Kirk headed back into history. Dundurn Castle, built in Hamilton in 1835 by Sir Allan Napier MacNab, a successful businessman and politician, had many rooms and a solid foundation. Kirk wanted to build a business with a solid foundation, and MacNab’s life and that old castle inspired him. Over fifty years in operation and now with new owners, Dundurn Press continues to demonstrate the necessity of a solid foundation,.
Kirk assumed leadership roles in the fledgling publishing industry, serving as president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, president of the Ontario Book Publishers, Access Copyright, and many more publishing related organizations. He was particularly proud of being the driving force in the creation of the Commonwealth Book Publishers Association in 2017.
Personally, I knew Kirk as a proud man with a vision to capture Canadian stories. It was not always easy. There were many dark days in the business when funds were short and there was too much work to do, but Kirk persevered.
A shy man and extremely intelligent, he was challenged in making so many decisions that would affect peoples’ lives. Preferably he would put off decisions until the last possible moment, which created many interesting scenarios. He was stubborn, which often saved the day but made his colleagues extremely frustrated.
His sense of humour was an important tool in helping him become a a successful publisher and there are many stories on the road to that success.
Welcome to the many colleagues and authors here today who worked with and learned from Kirk. He would be honoured to have you here.
Kirk received many accolades over the years and was deservedly invested into the Order of Canada in 2019 for realizing his dream of mapping this country with books. What a glorious legacy.
Holly Doll on Sharon Fitzhenry:
We are deeply saddened to announce that the bright light that was Sharon Fitzhenry was lost suddenly on August 26. Sharon was loyal, protective, tenacious, stubborn, assertive, and above all, loving.
Sharon was president and CEO of Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, a Canadian family-owned publishing company specializing in children’s books, adult non-fiction, and cookbooks. Fitzhenry & Whiteside was Sharon’s life.
Her visionary spirit was the driving force behind morphing Fitz & Witz, as it was fondly known, into a publishing company, when it had previously focused mainly on distribution. An innovator, she was among the first who saw the importance of supporting children’s publishing in Canada. She launched the careers of hundreds of authors, illustrators, publishers, marketing execs, and more. She was tireless in her pursuit of the next book, and looked to every conversation, experience, and acquaintance as a potential jumping off point. She was often quoted as saying ‘is there a book in that?’ She loved abstract and obscure ideas—they can be seen through the books that she published.
When her father, Robert (Bob) Fitzhenry, suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak, Sharon moved home to care for him. She devoted every morning and evening to be by his side, while still working full time as CEO of Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
Public libraries loved Sharon because she single-handedly boosted their circulation numbers. Weekends would often see her taking ten or fifteen books out at a time, reading most of them. Her phenomenal memory meant she retained most of what she read, and she could recite whole plots and details years later. This memory served her in handily solving every crossword puzzle she came across.
Fiercely intelligent, spirited, and full of life, she revelled in a good argument for the mental challenge it provoked. She loved instigating verbal discussions with people to bring out their inner ‘gumption.’ This was received with mixed results by the people in question.
Sharon was an avid book collector, boasting of a personal library that exceeded 10,000 titles. She didn’t have a house, she had a home with books. Every wall, table, and nook overflowed with books in all subject areas. Bookshelves were floor-to-ceiling and double stacked. Her generous nature meant that if you came for a visit, you left with a bag of books and some cookies or ice cream or jujubes.
Sharon was a huge animal lover, taking care of a veritable menagerie of animals across her lifetime, including a myriad of cats, dogs, several horses, two hamsters, and a donkey. She had a very tender heart and always did her best to defend and support animals. This included occasionally sheltering the neighbour’s cat in winter to make sure he was warm enough. She liked to be extremely well informed, reading local, national and global newspapers. Once, while reading a newspaper from Yellowknife, she saw a notice about a dog that had been in a shelter for a year and was next on the list to be euthanized. A few phone calls later, the rambunctious Sumatra was on a cross-country trip as the newest member of her family.
Sharon liked to fly under the radar. She was never one to self-proclaim—she preferred her authors and illustrators to be in the limelight rather than herself. Because of this, she never received the kind of lifetime achievement awards and recognition befitting her contribution to book publishing in this country and to our Canadian culture in general.
Sharon is predeceased by her mother and father, Hilda and Bob Fitzhenry, her sister Bridget, and her life partner, Sal Nasello. She is survived by her sister, Holly (Peter), her nephew Martyn (Gretta), and her nieces Jillian and Pamela.
She will always be remembered for her warm, loving support of family and friends.
Her words will stay forever in our minds and her love in our hearts. We will miss hearing her catchphrase “holy shit” anytime something exciting happens.
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