John Monahan, JD 1998

Hart House has a new warden, as alumnus John Monahan takes the helm

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Nick Wong

From the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Nexus

Nothing is ever wasted in life, John Monahan, JD 1998, tells me. Sitting in his 17th-floor executive director’s office at the Mosaic Institute, the tall and tortoiseshell-bespectacled former diplomat, bureaucrat and practicing lawyer stresses the point exuberantly into my tape recorder, after I asked him about one line that stood out to me on his particularly and perfectly maintained LinkedIn profile:

Interests:  …write and perform sketch and improv comedy …


“I joke that 75 per cent of the people that have worked with me, or for me, would walk through fire for me. The other 25 per cent would want to light the match. The ratio is pretty good but I’d like it to be even better.”


Post 9/11, he was Ontario’s consul in New York, diplomacy and advocacy skills put to intense use to promote trade. One day he was untangling New Jersey tax questions affecting Ontario’s commercial truckers, the next showcasing the province’s tourism and travel gems to American media. 

In his downtime, he took classes and worked the NYC improv scene with friend and classmate Rachel Sklar, LLB 1998, “in the little performance spaces in the recesses of Brooklyn or Queens or whatever… We did tons of writing together and we laughed incessantly. It was a wonderful way of relieving the stress and tension of working in a busy consulate where there were high expectations and constant demands from all quarters.”

Monahan, however, is no stranger to taking on challenges. He was in his early 30s when he left his first Ontario ministry job in Toronto to go to law school—not to be a lawyer but to become one.

“I saw it as an opportunity to complete my education. It was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do it. And it’s the best decision I ever made—hands down.”

About three years at Faskens, four years as the province’s consul in NYC, then back to Toronto to direct and build out Ontario’s network of economic offices around the world. After more than a decade in a for-profit world, in 2008 he moved into the non.


“…No grand design. I kind of subscribe to that old joke: if you want to make God laugh, tell Him you’ve got plans."


As executive director, he ramped up the research and programming agenda of the Mosaic Institute, and engaged Canadian youth with direct experiences of overseas conflict in discussions (local) and peacebuilding projects (global).

Which has led him to here, back on the University of Toronto campus to head up Hart House, the co-curricular cradle of this university, with its gothic halls housing athletics, activities, debates, events, theatre, music space and quiet space—and pub nights.

How will the new warden lead and keep everyone from millennials to alumni engaged in their House?

He has a vision. “Hart House is not only a physical space, with a tremendous legacy and a really unlimited potential, but it’s also a virtual space, for community building and for creating an even more inclusive university, and for connecting in more creative ways with the city, the province and the world,” says Monahan. But first, he’ll lead by listening.


“I think I’m really fortunate. I can only imagine there must have been some kind of administrative error. I’m really, really happy.”


And he’s writing comedy sketches again, with a new partner. “We’re starting to work on some projects that could be delivered by another medium very soon. It won’t necessarily be live performance, but it will be something equally funny.”

The diplomatic lawyer with a funny bone says he’s right where he wants to be.

“It’s not like I’m abandoning the other chapters of my career. I think each one leads to the next stage somehow, and that hasn’t failed me yet.”

Because nothing is ever wasted.