No ordinary teacher: A remembrance of Terry Punch

By John Macleod

Known throughout the Maritimes and beyond as a genealogist Terry Punch, in writing his obituary, characterised himself as “a retired educator … active in historical and genealogical circles.” A victim of cancer, he died on April 11, 2017, three months and four days after his 80th birthday.


Terry Punch, 1937-2017

Well known in the Maritimes as CBC radio’s “resident genealogist,” his appearances on the regional call in program Maritime Noon began in 1987 and were widely anticipated. Throughout the Maritimes listeners queued up on the phone lines to pitch their genealogical problems his way. With his encyclopedic knowledge of immigration patterns, genealogical sources, and the origins of family names, strike outs were rare and the insatiable appetite of many Maritimers for genealogical information was usually met with some new facts offered to each caller until his last appearance this December.

The funeral home’s online guest book is a source that didn’t exist for most of Terry’s research lifetime. Among the many entries of those who only knew him through the radio, there emerges a second theme of remembrance seen through the words of many former students. “He was not only my teacher, he was a mentor and friend.” “No ordinary teacher…Terry dealt well with current events too: teaching us the importance of opposition to the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration and to the virulent discrimination that sparked the race riots of the day.” “Terry was that teacher who you always remember as the one who changed your life & your future.”

His teaching career in the Halifax school system began in 1965 after arts and education degrees obtained at Saint Mary’s University. He was a slightly mature student who balanced naval service in supply and signals with study. He taught at different levels retiring from St Patrick’s High School but also having served at the challenging junior high level and at grade 6 in St Francis school where his students in 1979 produced the “Colour-me history of early Halifax.” He contributed to the wider education system, worked on updating Nova Scotia’s junior high social studies curriculum, and in 1983 was awarded the National Award for Canadian History and Social Science Teacher of the Year.

In the Halifax of his birth, it could be said that he was a product of a mixed marriage: a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Terry the social scientist would accept the fact of this. Terry the teacher would ask why would it matter? Terry the genealogist would remind you that culture is complicated and sometimes deceiving: his Catholic grandfather would often provide the white horse for the Orange parade. Terry the person would celebrate the genealogical stories because they were interesting and contextual; however, as it was noted at his funeral by a CBC host, Terry’s body language would tense and his voice go terse when callers attempted to translate genealogical fact into personal preferment.

In 1990 Acadiensis Press republished Winthrop Bell’s The Foreign Protestants and the settlement of Nova Scotia. Originally published in 1961 by the University of Toronto Press, this book examined the settlers of early Lunenburg placed there by the British Colonial authorities as counterweight to the still present Acadians. Mostly German, but with some French, they were also among Terry’s genealogical interests and ancestors. Supporting the book is Bell’s genealogical study of these settlers that found a home at the Nova Scotia Archives. To the young Punch avidly interested in genealogy, Bell was an idol;  later in Terry’s career his homage to Bell’s work would appear in the 2004 Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, “’Even If I Cannot Finish…:’ Winthrop Bell and His Register.”

In the 1950s, Bell founded the Genealogical Committee of the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Although nominally still in existence through the 1960s, Punch and other much younger members of the Society revived the genealogical committee in 1971 with a plan of action to publish a newsletter, give lectures on genealogical methods and topics, and to compile information on known Nova Scotia genealogies. In time this would lead also to the publication of sources. This was four years before the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, a novel that is often seen as the launching pad of genealogical research in North America. Interest in Nova Scotia was such that in 1978 a local publisher took a chance on publishing Terry’s Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia, which was both a guide to the Nova Scotia Archive’s genealogical holdings and a how-to handbook. The book has endured many reprints and a few updated editions, the most recent in 1998.

Organizationally genealogy took off as well. With an international membership of several hundred that received its newsletter, the Genealogical Committee had grown in numbers to exceed its parent. In 1992 it became a separate organization, (Genealogical Association of Nova Scotia), with Terry as its founding chair and guiding spirit. Awards soon followed. An honorary degree (Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa)) was conferred by Saint Mary’s in 2000, and in 2010 he was awarded the Order of Canada with the citation emphasising the development and promotion of genealogy and the role that family history plays in the development of Canada. Terry saw these awards as confirmation that genealogy and family history were valid and vital fields for historical endeavour.

As an advocate for genealogical research Punch continued his studies at Saint Mary’s and in 1972 received his master’s degree. His thesis, The Halifax connection, 1749-1948 ; a century of oligarchy in Nova Scotia, was an analysis of the connections among the elite of Nova Scotia through an examination of their business, religious and, of course, their genealogical connections, with an extensive genealogical appendix that mapped out the connections of the local version of the Family Compact. Regrettably this local analysis of a situation which contributed to the movement to responsible government did not maintain his interest. Rather, his historical interests hovered around the transition of the Irish in Halifax from being outsiders in a city where, on paper, Catholics were without power, influence, or even the right to own land, to being part of the elite, as elected representatives and leaders of society. This topic stayed with him for the rest of his writing career. A preface to a later genealogical work included the gravestone epitaph of the widow of Lawrence Kavanagh who died in 1778 and who was, as Punch noted, the mother of a son of the same name who would in 1823 become the first Catholic to sit in the Nova Scotia House, doing so, Punch observed, six years before Daniel O’Connell was permitted to do the same in the UK. A second master’s degree, this time from Dalhousie, was awarded in 1977 for The Irish in Halifax, 1836-1871 : a study in ethnic assimilation. A number of publications arose from this thesis, with titles coming out of the International Education Centre at Saint Mary’s and the Four East publication’s Peoples of Nova Scotia series. Additionally, eight entries were provided to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography ranging from the expected Catholic ministers and businessmen to more obscure German settlers of Nova Scotia.

From the perspective of today it is difficult to understand how differently historians and other social scientists of the 1960s and 1970s completed research connected with biographical endeavours. Looking for facts was hard sleuthing. Locating obituaries for even the noted posed difficulties when dates of death were not known. Gwen Davies, a researcher of tenacious ability, acknowledged in her Volume 7 Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Sarah Herbert the assistance of Terry Punch in locating the obituary of Herbert’s father, the Reverend Nicholas Herbert, who outlived his author/publisher daughter. Terry’s ability in aiding researchers such as Davies was facilitated by his role as the chief compiler and editor of a series of indexes to Nova Scotia newspapers that captured birth, marriage and death dates, and which in time would cover Halifax newspapers from approximately 1769 to 1856. The multiple volumes of newspaper stats, and another publication on religious marriages in Halifax that Terry compiled added to the accessibility of these primary sources of information.

Behind the compilations, Terry was sitting on even more information gathered from his many hours and days of microfilm reading. In the acknowledgments at the end of Volume 4 of his Erin’s Sons: Irish arrivals in Atlantic Canada to 1863, he noted the impetus of the late Dr. Cyril Bryne of Saint Mary’s University, who urged him to “carpe diem and not let a life time of research go unpublished.” For those interested in Scots, Irish, or Montbeliard immigration to Nova Scotia or the Maritimes these 11 volumes are a trove of information. While primarily reference works, each volume has an introduction suitable for the context of immigration of the time and then extracts from various newspapers, church records, grave yards and other sources where individuals in the colonial Nova Scotia indicated where they were from in Europe. The value of these compilations is great as for the most part immigration records in the pre-Confederation period are almost non-existent for Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and just slightly better for New Brunswick.

Terry is survived by a wife Pam, a son Sean, and a sister Carolyn. He was predeceased by daughters Sara (1985) and Jill (1987).

John Macleod is an archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives.



About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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2 Responses to No ordinary teacher: A remembrance of Terry Punch

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of April 30, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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