Remembering Michael S. Cross

By Peter L. Twohig

When I heard that Michael died, I just wanted to hear his voice again. So I listened to a lecture he gave at Memorial University in 1983. The lecture series on Canadian and Working Class history took place at Memorial University, organized by Gregory Kealey, another eminent historian. I smiled when it was noted that Michael was actively working on his biography on Robert Baldwin. He would finish that book – but not until 2012! But like much of Michael’s work, it was done to a very high standard. It won the Osgoode Society’s John T. Saywell Prize in constitutional history and the Canadian Authors Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History.

There are dozens of historians more capable than me who could assess Michael’s impact on the discipline of history, and I am not up to that task. I can see books on my shelves that bear his name and countless others that were shaped by his editorial skill and trenchant criticism. In the acknowledgements of my second book, Labour in the Laboratory, I wrote that Michael’s “dedication to his students, the stuff of urban legend at Dalhousie and beyond, proved accurate and I benefitted from his criticism and support. He is a powerful role model, personally and professionally, and it was my privilege to be his student.” I stand by that assessment. Let me tell you why.

After some time away, I decided to return to studies in 1993. At the suggestion of Daniel Woolf, Dalhousie’s graduate program coordinator, I arranged a meeting with Michael. His office was in one of the large houses that housed the History Department, recently demolished to make way for an expansion to the Dalhousie Arts Centre. I climbed a flight of stairs and knocked tentatively at the door. I heard a voice say “come in.” It was a routine that we would repeat countless times over the next several years. But what I remember most of all about that initial meeting was how he made me feel welcome.

Although he would not retire for another decade, Michael was approaching the end of a long and illustrious career as one of Canada’s foremost labour and social historians. I really wanted to work with him, even though my subject matter seemingly fell outside of his primary area of interest. Some other graduate students encouraged me to work with a different faculty member or go to another history department for my PhD. However, I conceptualized my project from the beginning as a study of labour and I knew that Michael would be an ideal supervisor for me. He certainly did not have to take me on as a student, but he did.

I spent countless hours in his office, usually with stacks of student exams or papers surrounding us. He always seemed to be marking. In part, this was because he taught some very large classes. Canadian Social History, True Believers, and Rough Justice were immensely popular both with history students and with those in search of an elective. Michael was one of those professors who could engage a lecture hall filled with a couple of hundred students and hold them spellbound. In 1995 he received the Alumni Association’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. But the award simply confirmed what everyone already knew. I would sometimes go to his classes just to listen to him lecture, in the hope that I could someday emulate him in a class of my own. I am still trying.

Michael was beloved by many of his students, but he had high academic standards. He treated his students with respect and was able to meet them where they were at, rather than focus exclusively on their deficiencies. He treated people the right way. I watched how he made time for everyone in the hope that I could someday emulate his decency. I try to do this every day, too.

Michael completed his PhD in 1968 (University of Toronto). He went on to team-teach a course with Michael Bliss at the University of Toronto. Bliss, of course, was another of the important voices for Canadian social history in this formative period. I always found the idea of these two Michaels sharing a class to be more than a little incongruous. But they helped to expand the content of our discipline. Michael Cross moved to Dalhousie in 1975 and he helped to transform the department into a powerhouse, one of the important centres for working class and social history. He influenced a generation of scholars – Nolan Reilly, David Frank, Gregory Kealey, Craig Heron, Suzanne Morton, and others.

Michael had a very strong service ethic. He worked tirelessly on behalf of historians at the Canada Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, he edited journals and essay collections, and reviewed countless papers. He served as the Dean of Henson College at Dalhousie University, which had a mandate to do research on public issues and run continuing education programs. Michael served two terms as the Chair of the History Department and also as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science. As if this was not enough, he was also the chief negotiator for the Dalhousie Faculty Association on two occasions. Although university and professional service is frequently undervalued, I admired both the range of his activities and the depth of his commitment. He told me that senior faculty members had the responsibility to carry more of the load, to ensure younger colleagues had the space to thrive. Another lesson to carry forward.

We would have coffee together and discuss books or the latest journal articles. When the work was done, we turned our attention to items we heard on the CBC or music, which he loved. We shared a love of artists as diverse as Billie Holiday and Susan Aglukark.  I once gave him a new release by David Deacon and he told me that he could not listen to it because of Deacon’s voice. He then turned around and gave me a Rage Against the Machine CD.

As I progressed through my PhD, I frequently turned to him for advice. He read every draft chapter of my first book, a project that I undertook while still working on my dissertation. I was also given a unique opportunity to begin my career in the Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine before completing my PhD. The position was in Fredericton in the Family Medicine Teaching Unit but with the potential to link my work to the strong Medical Humanities program. Michael reassured me that I could take the position and still finish my PhD in a timely fashion. I did this but only because of his unwavering commitment and support. He went on to write countless letters for me for jobs, for tenure and promotion purposes, for fellowships, and for my Canada Research Chair file as I tried to get my career established.

I do not have a lot of close friendships. But I always felt comfortable with Michael and I trusted him and valued his advice. In November 1993, I wanted to quit the PhD program. I am sure that most PhD students get to this point, but I was, frankly, in a crisis. He was empathetic and listened to me. Michael’s humanity was on full display that day. I continued to benefit from his wisdom and skill as a professor and the lessons he taught me were transformative, professionally and personally.

There is a famous Taoist phrase about reflecting the lessons of your teacher out to the rest of the world. I hope that I honour Michael’s memory in my own way, during my encounters with my own students and colleagues. I realize now that I did not have go in search of his voice on that sad day when I learned of his death. I have heard it every day since I first ascended those stairs in 1993.


Peter L. Twohig is the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts at Saint Mary’s University and a member of the Department of History and the Atlantic Canada Studies program. He was Michael Cross’s last PhD student.


Please Note: The Department of History at Dalhousie University will be holding a memorial gathering  on 6 December 2019 at 5:00 pm at the University Club pub on the Dalhousie campus. You can also make a donation to support an undergraduate essay prize in Canadian or labour history, named in Michael’s honour at giving.dal.ca/MichaelCross

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 corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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