The one and only Honora

Honora Shaughnessy has led McGill’s efforts
 in alumni relations for 19 years.
(Photo: Claudio Calligaris)

It’s not easy to keep a secret from Honora Shaughnessy, MLS’73. The woman has built up a formidable network of contacts in the 36 years she has worked at McGill – the last 19 as the head of alumni relations. She knows people everywhere. So Vice Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Marc Weinstein, BA’85, BCL’91, LLB’91, and his co-conspirators must have been pleased when they successfully sprung a big surprise on Shaughnessy during the McGill Alumni Association’s recent Honours and Awards Banquet.

Not listed on the official program for the event was a brand new award, the Honora Shaughnessy McGill Ambassador Award, which will be presented each year to an individual who has made exceptional contributions to fostering team spirit and goodwill towards the University. There was no question about who the first recipient should be. A straight-talking redhead with an array of colourful scarves and necklaces, Shaughnessy has been almost as emblematic of McGill to generations of graduates as the Roddick Gates or the Arts Building’s cupola.

Her McGill roots go deep, Her grandfather, Frank, was a legendary McGill football coach -- he introduced the forward pass to Canadian football -- and the annual Shaughnessy Cup game between McGill and Concordia is played in his honour. Before taking up the helm of alumni relations, she worked in the McGill library system and as the executive assistant to Principals David Johnston and Bernard Shapiro. She also led the University’s employment equity efforts for eight years.

“She has been such a tremendous ambassador for McGill,” says former McGill Alumni Association president Sally McDougall, BSc'68, DipEd'69, DLitt'13. “I’ve seen the enormous respect that colleagues from across North America have for her. Honora's focus has always been on making alumni relations at McGill a better place. She has never been about advancing Honora Shaughnessy.”

"She's a real nurturer and a mentor to her staff and to her volunteers," says Morna Flood Consedine, MEd'77, DEd'85, another former MAA president. Flood Consedine suspects that Shaughnessy, who will soon be retiring as McGill’s senior executive director for alumni relations, is probably uncomfortable with all the attention she is receiving right now. "She has always been very gracious about letting other people shine in the spotlight. She wouldn't like a lot of blah-blah-blah about herself," laughs Flood Consedine. "She is an incredibly classy woman, always open to new ideas, and a leader who does what's right."

Shaughessy recently spoke to McGill News editor Daniel McCabe, BA’89, about her remarkable career.

What surprised you the most when you first arrived at Martlet House to head up alumni relations?

I had already been working at the University for quite some time. I was a McGill graduate myself and members of my family had been to McGill. In spite of all that, I was still caught off-guard by the intense pride that our alumni have for McGill. It’s absolutely genuine. So many graduates have stories about how McGill helped shape their lives and how McGill opened doors for them. It really influenced the way that I thought about the University. Often with our graduates, once they’ve had a little distance and the opportunity to reflect on their time at McGill, they realize what a pivotal part of their lives that experience was.

What alumni events did you enjoy attending the most?

In truth, the big, splashy events weren’t the high points for me. The events that stood out for me were the smaller get-togethers that took place regularly each year. One example would be in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, where we have an annual dinner for alumni every summer. At events like that, you really get to know people and you get more of a sense of how they feel about things. Friendships develop over the years with the people you see repeatedly, and that was a very rewarding part of the job for me.

When you look back on your work in alumni relations, are you proud of anything in particular?

When I arrived in 1996, there was no female representation on the [MAA’s] board of directors. Things are very different today in that regard and I’d like to think that I played a role in that.

In 2005, we produced the Task Force Report on Alumni Relations and that had a significant impact. The report made the case for the importance of alumni engagement at McGill. I think there is a fairly widespread appreciation today at McGill for just how important alumni are to the life of the University and the many ways that alumni support benefits the University. I don’t know if that appreciation was always there. I think the task force exercise also provided a valuable model in the way in which Alumni Association staff and volunteers collaborated effectively on a major project.

I’m proud of the way that we've reached out to McGill parents. The Parents Tent made its first appearance on campus in 1998 and it has grown to be an anchor for Orientation Week. We realized how important it was to make parents feel that they were part of the campus community and they’ve really responded to that. I notice at all the student send-offs we organize in different cities for new McGill students, the parents ask far more questions about McGill and Montreal than their children do. The students are happy just to meet each other.

I’m also very proud of my staff. They’re such a loyal, committed, hard-working group – and a lot of fun to be with too. They’re always willing to try new ways of engaging with our alumni.

How has that changed over the years – engaging with alumni?

Our older graduates take a lot of pleasure in opportunities to spend time with one another. A chance to catch up with old friends and take part in something interesting. A book reading or a night at the symphony is something special for them.

That doesn't always work with younger graduates. Someone in her early forties with a demanding career and a couple of kids might tell us that she has no time to come to one of our events – but she’ll make the time for something that speaks to her. In the last few years, for instance, we’ve paid much more attention to networking events and career-oriented events and they tend to be very popular.

What did you learn from the McGill principals you worked with?

David Johnston taught me the value of the hand-written thank you note. He also taught me something about how to deal with anger. When he was upset with someone, he’d often write a letter to that person, and then he’d give it to me. He’d say, ‘Keep it until I ask for it.’” Almost always, he’d rip the note up and toss it in the garbage. When you’re mad, take a step back before you act. That’s a lesson that has stayed with me through the years.

Bernard Shapiro taught me to never sweat the small stuff. What mattered to him was always staying focused on the big picture.

Heather Munroe-Blum taught us the importance of always being professional in our approach – that we weren’t just representing ourselves in what we did, we were also representing the institution.

Once you retire, will you stay connected to McGill?

Yes, I will be continuing to contribute to special projects including developing plans for McGill's 200th  anniversary celebrations. I've recently been working on a new Women, Leadership & Philanthropy at McGill initiative. We want to increase the representation of women involved in leadership positions and governance with philanthropy. If you look at the number of women taking part in key committees or advisory boards, there is still work that needs to be done. We had an event in Toronto in April with Kathleen Taylor, the chair of the Royal Bank and a McGill parent, that looked at issues related to women in the workplace and their leadership styles. We had a great turnout for that.

Do you have any advice for the person who takes over from you?

Have fun! This is one of the best jobs at the University. You’re constantly meeting interesting and committed alumni who care about McGill. Just take their enthusiasm and thrive with it.