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Kirk Howard, founder of the quintessentially Canadian publishing house Dundurn Press, has died. The publisher confirmed Howard died on June 30 at age 80.Ian Payton/The Canadian Press

Kirk Howard, founder in 1972 of Dundurn Press – one of Canada’s most prolific independent publishing houses – had an inauspicious start in the book business. A college history instructor with no publishing experience, Mr. Howard famously asked friends, “How hard can it be?”

Much harder than expected, he confessed to the Toronto Star 20 years later.

After quitting academia, Mr. Howard used his $2,200 pension fund to print 10,000 copies of a calendar of historic Canadian events just three months before New Year’s Day 1973 – much too late to market them to national retailers.

Stuck inside a tiny office on Spadina Avenue in Toronto with cartons of unsold inventory, he quickly tempered his plans for easy profits and went on to build a well-regarded list of books about Canadian politics and personalities that kept Dundurn growing as other publishers faltered.

Mr. Howard died on June 30 at age 80 in Newmarket, Ont.

“Kirk had a focus on history books a tier below the bestselling Pierre Berton titles,” says his long-time collaborator Patrick Boyer, a former Progressive Conservative MP. “His titles showed the people and events that shaped Canada.”

One of those early books was a reprint of The New World Journal of Alexander Graham Dunlop, a comparison of American and Canadian societies originally published in 1845.

With the motto “Canadian authors telling Canadian stories,” Mr. Howard produced about 2,500 titles before he sold his company in 2019. Along the way, he allied with other independent publishers such as ECW’s Jack David and Second Story Press’s Margie Wolfe to convince the federal and Ontario governments that they had an obligation to support a domestic book industry. Despite their disparate editorial dreams, Mr. Howard helped his publishing colleagues create the Association of Canadian Publishers, the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and Access Copyright, all important institutions today. He eventually served terms as president of the ACP and OBPO.

Dundurn’s vice-president of sales and marketing, Beth Bruder, arrived at Dundurn in 2000 after many years with John Wiley, a giant multinational educational publishing machine, and was surprised by the economic realities of the Canadian publishing landscape.

“Why are you doing things the way they’re being done, I asked,” says Ms. Bruder who retired in 2017 after bringing order to Dundurn’s sales department and casual delivery deadlines. “But I eventually came to realize the passion behind Canadian publishing companies.”

While his colleagues tended to specialize in a narrow range of book genres, “Kirk’s mission was broader,” says Mr. David of ECW. “He was publishing history books that contributed to Canadian culture, but also commercial books like [the automobile-consumer guide] Lemon-Aid and books about ghosts that had a commercial side. … Kirk had an eye for bringing in revenue.”

Mr. Howard also won several lucrative government contracts. His monolithic 23-volume Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, released in 1991, financed new staff and the acquisition of several small presses. Dundurn’s The Canadian Style, a 1985 language and grammar guide for the Secretary of State, sold more than 50,000 copies and then was revised in 1997.

More controversial was Dundurn’s 2010 bestseller Peter Gzowski, A Biography by R.B. Fleming that revealed a dark side of Canada’s favourite CBC host that included alcoholism, depression and unpaid child support.

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John Kirk Howard, born in Hamilton on Dec. 3, 1942, was the only child of Lillian Eileen (née Sherif) and Albert (Jack) Howard, a hardware salesman. The family moved to Etobicoke, a Toronto borough, in 1951.

After graduating from the University of Toronto and the University of Vermont, where he earned a master of arts degree, Mr. Howard took a job teaching history at Sarnia’s Lambton College. He had risen to head of its arts department when he heard a fiery speech by publisher Jack McClelland about the urgent need for a strong Canadian book industry. Already frustrated with a lack of material for his Canadian studies course, Mr. Howard jumped into the fray, co-founding Dundurn, named for a Hamilton landmark, with his partner Ian Low, who served as comptroller.

In the raucous, egotistical world of publishing, Mr. Howard is remembered as a shy, self-effacing man, more listener than storyteller, who dressed like an old-school banker. He once told a story about wearing a heavy three-piece woollen suit for a boat ride to an author’s cottage in the summer’s heat. “The suit got wet,” he admitted ruefully.

Ms. Wolfe jokes that “he didn’t look like the rest of us. Even when he wasn’t wearing a tie, he looked like he was wearing a tie.”

No doubt his suits gave him the gravitas he needed to make the world take him and Canadian publishing seriously. As his resources grew, he incorporated struggling houses into Dundurn, including Thomas Allen, Napoleon and Co., and Simon & Pierre, and hosted monthly roundtables to hear each imprint’s pitches for new books. Ponderous over some business decisions, he trusted his instincts for book projects and approved proposals quickly, so long as the authors were Canadian.

As the publishing landscape began shrinking after 2000, Ms. Bruder says, “He made the changes that were needed to stay alive.” He adopted e-book technology early and continued to release a wide range of new books.

By 2017, the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease forced him to search for a buyer. Instead of becoming a small imprint of a multinational giant, Dundurn was purchased by three expansion-minded technology entrepreneurs in 2019.

In his final decade, Mr. Howard forged a friendship with first-time novelist Sharon Johnston, wife of Governor-General David Johnston. On publication of her book Matrons and Madams, the fictionalized story of Ms. Johnston’s grandmother who established a syphilis clinic for veterans, the viceregal couple invited her publisher for a few days’ stay at Rideau Hall in 2015.

A devoted monarchist, Mr. Howard revelled in the opportunity to explore an institution he held in high regard his entire life.

Four years later, he was inducted as a companion of the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture by Governor-General Julie Payette.

“That pin was never more than a minute from him,” Mr. David says. “It was the major acknowledgment of what he had done.”

Mr. Howard died of Parkinson’s disease, leaving Thieu Dang, his spouse of 20 years. His previous partner, Mr. Low, predeceased him.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this obituary stated incorrectly that Patrick Boyer is a former Liberal MP. In fact he is a former Progressive Conservative MP. This version has been corrected.

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