No one ever accused former Newfoundland premier Joseph Smallwood of thinking small, and so it was with his idea for the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Every theme belongs in the encyclopedia. Every person, every event, every location, every institution, every development, every industry, every intellectual activity, every religious movement in Newfoundland belongs in there.”
It was a major preoccupation of his life post-politics. The first volume came out in 1981, the second in 1984. But then Mr. Smallwood had a stroke, and the project stalled.
That could have been the end of it. Who would take on such a massive piece of work? Who would champion the concept of chronicling every aspect of a province? Who would organize it, liaise with the Joseph R. Smallwood Heritage Foundation and see the thing through?
Harry Cuff, that’s who.
Mr. Cuff, who died of an aneurysm on Aug. 31 in St. John’s at the age of 85, was a well-known publisher and educator and a tireless cultural advocate for his home province. When he founded Harry Cuff Publications Ltd. in 1971, he positioned it as a company dedicated to producing and distributing writing from and about Newfoundland and Labrador.
Five years before that he had joined the faltering Newfoundland Historical Society and helped bring it to new prominence. He was also the editor-in-chief of the Newfoundland Quarterly (established in 1901) when it threatened to sputter out in the early 1980s, and persuaded Memorial University of Newfoundland to set up a foundation to continue publishing it. Mr. Cuff oversaw the magazine for almost 40 years before resigning in 2001.
He was the perfect person for projects like that – he had great energy and loved to network. As a former teacher who had stood in front of his first classroom before he was 20, he knew the importance of telling our own stories. “I’ve been an English teacher for 12 years and the main reason I got involved in publishing in the first place was that I always felt there were Newfoundlanders who could and should write,” he once told The Newfoundland Herald.
Still, the encyclopedia project must have seemed daunting. “As envisioned by Smallwood, it was a reference of quick facts about everything to do with Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Joan Ritcey, head of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University Libraries.
Ms. Ritcey was on the encyclopedia’s editorial board in the early 1990s, when the last three volumes were produced. “It was a huge amount of work, hundreds of articles to write and fact check and print,” she said. The final work measured five volumes, ran 3,900 pages and included writing from 200 authors. “The Encyclopedia remains an important and basic tool to any Newfoundland researcher. And Harry was essential. He made his office a real centre for Newfoundland research.”
Born Aug. 8, 1928, in Bonavista, Nfld., Harry Alfred Cuff was the fifth of six children of Fred Cuff, a section foreman with the Newfoundland Railway, and Mary (née Saint). The family lived in a railroad section house.
Harry graduated from high school in 1945 and took a six-week summer school course in classroom management at Memorial University College, which prepared him for teaching in a one-room school on the Cape Shore. He had 65 students who called him “miss” because they had never had a male teacher before. Most of the families wintered in tilts along the railway line, and from mid-November to April his enrolment dropped as low as 17 students.
Mr. Cuff liked to write and began submitting stories about growing up in Bonavista to the Sunday Herald. Sometimes he would win a box of chocolates, or he might be paid one cent a word; he remembered getting cheques for $4.
After two years of teaching he enrolled again at Memorial. There he met Doreen Gill, who hailed from Fogo Island. “Dating wasn’t an option – she was not allowed out after 10, and there was no extra money to go to a movie or out for a meal,” Mr. Cuff’s son Robert Cuff said, quoting his father, at his memorial service. But Christmas found them sharing a train as they travelled to their holidays; they held hands. Ms. Gill arranged to be on the same train when they returned.
But their romance and his studies were interrupted late in 1948 when he developed tuberculosis. He was a sanatorium patient for six months in 1949. He knew he might die of the disease, just as he knew people who were dying of it. But he survived and went back to his life with renewed commitment and conviction.