Steven Laffoley on the steps of Halifax Grammar School.

New Adventure

Saint Mary’s Shapes Not One Career But Two

By Erin Elaine Casey | fall 2016

Growing up, Steven Laffoley never saw himself as an educator—or as a writer. “I was a kid for whom education had not made its mark,” he says, laughing. “I owe it all to the Halifax Grammar School and Saint Mary’s.” Today, Laffoley is both a distinguished chronicler of Nova Scotia history and the new Headmaster of the Halifax Grammar School.

After leaving his home outside Boston as a teenager, Laffoley got his first taste of what a meaningful education could be when he attended the Halifax Grammar School in grade 11. He went on to earn three degrees from Saint Mary’s: A Bachelor of Arts in 1987, a Master of Arts in 1991, and a Bachelor of Education in 1991. He permanently relocated to Halifax in 1992.

He credits both the intimate atmosphere and extraordinary professors at SMU with inspiring him to follow his dreams. In his second year, the late Dr. Dick Twomey of the Department of History “savaged a paper of mine,” Laffoley says. “There was more red ink than type. The Boston street kid came out in me,” he says, describing his determination to be a better writer, no matter what it took.

And a better writer he became. Over the past thirty years, Laffoley has authored articles, essays, radio stories, seven creative non-fiction books and one novel. Halifax: In Search of History, Mystery and Murder (2007) was shortlisted for the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Evelyn Richardson Memorial Non-Fiction Award. The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime and Shadowboxing: The Rise and Fall of George Dixon (2012) won the 2013 Evelyn Richardson Nonfiction Award.

“It’s not a hobby. As a writer, it’s a compulsion to make sense of things,” he explains. “Writing is this increasingly rare opportunity to sit still and to think.” Laffoley often writes late at night, in the home he shares with his wife and teenaged daughter. This productive habit started a few years ago, when his daughter couldn’t sleep without someone sitting next to her. “So I would take my laptop into her room, and while she was falling asleep I wrote Hunting Halifax, which is the best selling book I’ve ever written.” 

Laffoley’s books are typically based on historical events, and he often inserts himself as a writer or detective character. He can have four or five narratives going on at once, in different time frames, a technique he is now known for. “I didn’t think I was strong enough as a writer to maintain that one narrative, so I ended up creating my own style,” he explains.

His latest book is The Halifax Poor House Fire: A Victorian Tragedy (2016). The poor house was located on the current site of the IWK, and burned down in the 1880s. It was the worst instance of fire death in the city, killing Halifax’s poorest and most destitute. “I’m not just telling a story; I’m evoking a deeper appreciation for what happens when a society has a great disparity of wealth.” Laffoley believes the lessons of history are very much alive for us today, if we care to learn them.

His career as an educator has run parallel to his career as an author. He has taught every grade from primary to 12, except grade three, and continues to teach grade five English. He has also lectured in the Department of History at Saint Mary’s. This spring, after 21 years at Halifax Grammar, 19 of them as Head of the Middle School, he became its thirteenth Headmaster. In some schools, a headmaster can be a reserved and distant person, but that’s not Laffoley. He stands out front greeting kids and their parents every morning and has plans to “bring the family back together again from the two campuses.” Plans are afoot to build into the parking lot and to the north and south of the existing property, and it won’t be long before the school community is reunited. 

With 500 students from junior primary to grade 12, and a strong focus on the broader goals—athletics, the arts, and service—not just academics, Halifax Grammar is “quite a place,” says Laffoley. “It’s like SMU—it’s a family school, we’re all in this together, and we support each other.”

It’s clear that Steven Laffoley owes his love of learning to Saint Mary’s. He recalls going to pick up his marks in first year, and finding they were all A’s. He couldn’t believe it. “I was just wide-eyed,” he laughs. “You get lucky now and again. Everything I got in trouble for at school, I was rewarded for at SMU. Asking questions, challenging concepts. It says a lot about the character of the professors and the institution.”

If the Grammar School showed Steven there was something inside him worth exploring, Saint Mary’s helped him understand what that might look like. At both schools, he found an educational philosophy that nurtures and rewards effort and ability. “At Saint Mary’s, learning was very personal, very passionate. I owe a lot to the values I learned at SMU: hard work, community, and family. It’s an extraordinary university.”

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