Remembering Ralph Hancox

by Rowland Lorimer

British-born Canadian, Ralph Hancox, a pilot, reporter, Studebaker Silver Hawk owner, editor, publisher, CEO, adjunct professor and professional fellow, teacher, Nieman Fellow, Harvard Management Development Program participant, and fiction and nonfiction book author, has shuffled off his mortal coil and lives on in the fond memories of his former students and colleagues in Simon Fraser University’s Publishing program. He was predeceased by his wife, Margaret (Peg), and is survived by his four children and their families.

As Ralph was nearing retirement from Reader’s Digest, his daughter Alison happened to hear a 1990s CBC radio interview of Ann Cowan-Buitenhuis, who was talking about a new Master of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University that she co-founded with me in 1995. Alison’s view was that such a program would be perfect for her father’s post-retirement career, based on his abiding interest in teaching and education.

Ann and I met with Ralph at his club on a cold, wet night in Montreal. I can still recall fearing for my well-being as we hurtled down the highway in Ralph’s Mercedes station wagon, into a darkness peppered with pelting rain and snow. The purpose of our meeting was to tell Ralph about the program. The result of the meeting was his expression of interest–an expression that led to Ralph’s later suggestion that we submit a proposal for support to the Reader’s Digest Foundation (Canada), which had been created to allow Reader’s Digest Canada to act in conformity with Canadian ownership regulations in Canada’s magazine industry. Previous to this, the foundation had assisted journalism programs, some of the graduates of which, Ralph noted, led such a concerted anti-Reader’s Digest lobby that the company had set aside a permanent office for federal auditors to review its books to ensure that Reader’s Digest Canada was not feeding funds back to its US parent company.

Ann and I welcomed the opportunity, given that we kept claiming that our proposal had the support of industry. Ironically, while that support was real, it was verbal and we walked away empty-handed from pitches to the profitable sectors of the industry. These included educational book publishers, larger Canadian and foreign-owned book publishers (one of which helped us later), and magazine publishers such as Maclean-Hunter (later sold to Roger’s). As Chair of the Reader’s Digest Foundation (Canada), Ralph delivered support of a sufficient amount that the university found itself looking more kindly on the idea of approving the establishment of its first professional social science and humanities-based professional program. As luck would have it, I was able to advise both sides on the conditions of the support, and thereby ensure that the resources the program needed were wisely allocated.

Fast forward to the program’s establishment and its staffing, and we decided that, after due diligence, we would take Ralph up on his offer to teach the publishing management course in the program without compensation. While Ann and I were willing to accept such a personal gift, the university wisely found funds to pay Ralph a token salary.

I did have misgivings about Ralph’s teaching. A major issue was that while Ralph insisted on teaching management techniques, many of our students had never held down a serious job. What utterly convinced me of Ralph’s value to the students was the increasing number of graduating Project Reports that applied Ralph’s framework to the operations in which they participated during their internships. As I read through these reports, I became familiar with the framework, and realized that other faculty members, including me, needed to up our game in providing students with tools that emphasized different frameworks for gaining insight into publishing practice.

In his years with the MPub at Simon Fraser, my colleagues and I got to know Ralph as a gracious and generous man who truly did love teaching. Each year he became more effective in his ability to convince the mainly English-major “candidates,” as he called our students, of the value of his application of process management. As a side effect, I acquired an increased sophistication in my understanding of management, and was particularly interested in hearing the other side of the Reader’s Digest Canada story. I learned how, for instance, constrained by foreign ownership regulations, Reader’s Digest Canada became a training ground for company executives placed around the world. Part of that process led to Ralph’s sojourn in Milan to get the Italian operation back on its feet.

Ralph’s retirement from teaching at 80 created quite a problem for the program. We attempted to recruit business profs. They were only interested in discussing research that critically analyzed general management practice, and might or might not have some relevance to publishing practice. We tried MBA profs, but none of them had any idea what happened within a publishing company. We tried other publishers, but they fell back on war stories. Finally, we turned to one of our graduates who had a business background and had been taught by the master himself. That worked. But then that graduate married a classmate, had a family, and moved to his wife’s hometown, Ottawa. Following that, we arranged for a New York publishing consultant to commute and teach what turned out to be business practice for publishers. That also worked out well in that our students learned lots from him, but they missed out on Ralph’s management framework. All during this time, we would bring Ralph back in an attempt to supplement the shortcomings of others. It worked to some degree, but his absence took its toll.

In Ralph’s second retirement he turned to his first love, writing. Encouraged by one of his sons to dust off a book manuscript for which he had an offer to publish to 1959, he published three books of fiction–one of which demonstrated the ability to write a whole novel using only conversation. He told me that he had to stop watching television because the tension it induced propelled his heart into arrhythmia. Writing was calmer. And of course, for a few years, he chaired his strata council, no doubt with aplomb.

Simon Fraser’s MPub benefitted greatly from Ralph Hancox. He helped to elevate the program to a truly graduate program. As a teacher; as a former executive who had been opened to management theory through his management development training and Nieman Fellowship at Harvard; as an old-school gentleman and grammarian; and as an enjoyable personage, we were all enriched. He was much loved by his students and colleagues. Like us all, however, he was mortal.