UM celebrates the career and contributions of public affairs lead, John Danakas
“Cody’s body was plastered onto the boards, his helmet knocking once, twice against the Plexiglas. His head seemed to swish around inside the helmet like Jello inside a bowl. Then the defender who’d nailed him finished the job off by sneaking a quick elbow to the ribs. A whistle blew.”
That was from the Canadian literary landmark book Hockey Night in Transcona, written by a much-praised young adult novelist by the name of John Danakas. It was published in 1995—his third book in a series of sports books for kids—and was also the one that got him the most kudos.
Just one year later, in 1996, Danakas was hired at what was then Public Affairs at the University of Manitoba and went on to help lead UM’s public relations and media engagement for almost a quarter of a century. He retired in November 2020 after serving four UM presidents: Dr. Arnold Naimark, Dr. Emőke J. E. Szathmáry, Dr. David T. Barnard, and Dr. Michael Benarroch.
Back in 1996, public affairs consisted of only a handful of staff, led by manager Ed Unrau, housed in a small brown shack on University Crescent where the Welcome Centre sits now. In those early days of Danakas’s career, the team physically mailed out news releases, wrote all the stories for the UM Bulletin, published the annual report, liaised with government, did all public inquiries, handled media questions, and prepared notes for the president’s office. Danakas had a hand in all of those functions.
Danakas took on several critical leadership roles throughout his UM career, serving as director of the marketing communications office, then as executive director of public affairs and later was appointed associate vice-president of strategic communications and government relations.
Through all of that, Danakas was the consummate professional, often working long hours, supporting faculty, staff, senior administrators, and presidents.
His incredible work ethic and talent was celebrated in 2014 when Danakas was presented with the President’s Award for Excellence. His citation noted:
A public face of the University of Manitoba for over ten years, John Danakas has been an exemplary leader of the Marketing Communications Office during significant change and a highly valued and trusted advisor to senior administration. His vision imparts respect across the University community through his combination of knowledge, solution-oriented approach to problem solving, and immediacy and tact in dealing with public concerns; he has achieved an unsurpassed trust over a broad-spectrum of the University community. John has dedicated himself to the promotion, enhancement, and protection of the reputation of the institution; he is a true champion of the University.
Danakas came to UM from the Winnipeg Sun where he had worked between 1986 and 1992 and was well-respected in the newsroom. He wrote for the entertainment section but also had a passion for sports, as evident by his several published books on the subject.
Danakas’s pride in his Greek heritage spurred him to endow a scholarship in Ancient Greek tragedy in the Faculty of Arts. His work with students on campus led the Graduate Students Association to honour him with a special award for his outstanding service to the university and its community.
Stephanie Levene, associate vice-president, alumni and donor relations, says of Danakas: “On our leadership team, John often played the contrarian role, offering a different perspective that helped illuminate a situation, bringing other voices to the table for consideration, and always keeping the bigger picture in mind.”
She added: “His communication skills were such that he could produce quotes and statements that, at face value, seemed smooth, fair, and balanced but belied the skill, strategy, and internal negotiations required to produce them.”
During the past 24 years, Danakas has been viewed by many at UM as a trusted colleague and friend who was never more than a text or phone call away.
John Kearsey, vice-president (external), said of Danakas, “John was an exceptional colleague – truly a rare and remarkable talent – and he remains a close confidant and friend. Our UM community owes him tremendous gratitude for his professionalism, mentorship and work as a valued and trusted voice for the university. We wish him a healthy and productive retirement.”
With Danakas’ retirement in November 2020, Myrrhanda Novak has been appointed executive director, public affairs, supporting media relations, issues management and government engagement.