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Peter Herrndorf, ‘Renaissance man’ of Canadian journalism and arts, dead at 82

Peter Herrndorf, an influential Canadian journalist and news programmer who later headed the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, has died at age 82.

Matthew Herrndorf said his father died early Saturday morning surrounded by family at a hospital in Toronto. The cause was cancer. 

“He had a big and consequential and important life, and [it’s] hard to put into words what he meant to us and what he meant to Canada,” Matthew Herrndorf told The Canadian Press on Saturday.

Herrndorf joined the CBC in Winnipeg in 1965, eventually becoming a vice-president, where he helped develop long-standing series including The Fifth Estate and The Journal.

He later took on roles as publisher of Toronto Life magazine, as well as chairman and CEO of TVO.

Then, in 1999, he began a nearly 19-year tenure as the president and CEO of the National Arts Centre (NAC), where he also helped establish the National Arts Centre Foundation and its Indigenous Theatre Department. 

What tied that varied and storied career together was Herrndorf’s passion for storytelling, said Christopher Deacon, who succeeded Herrndorf as the head of the NAC in 2018. 

“Whether it’s a big story that’s going to lead off the evening news or a story that’s gonna captivate 2,000 people watching an opera or a play, the throughline was the way we tell stories to communicate, to find meaning, and to share that meaning and community,” Deacon told the CBC on Saturday.

peter herrndorf renaissance man of canadian journalism and arts dead at 82
Herrndorf took the helm of the National Arts Centre in 1999. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

While calling Herrndorf a “brilliant” arts administrator, Deacon said he was perhaps more remarkable for his affability and openness. He pointed to Herrndorf’s daily routine of rubbing shoulders with everyone from stagehands to performers in the NAC’s “green room” or mess hall. 

“He saw that as a kind of crossroads where everyone met on equal terms,” Deacon said. “I had the great pleasure of watching how he did it. Peter used social skills to advance an agenda for the institution.”

Love of deep conversations

Steve Paikin, the host of TVO’s flagship current affairs program, The Agenda, said he owed Herrndorf his long career at TVO and that he’ll miss Herrndorf’s penchant for “deep conversations.” 

“He gave me one of the best lines once,” Paikin told the CBC. 

“He said, ‘If I want to have my senses assaulted by an exciting sporting event, I’ll take my son to a basketball game. But if I want to know what’s going on in my daughter’s life, I’ll take her to a baseball game.'”

peter herrndorf renaissance man of canadian journalism and arts dead at 82 1
Herrndorf is seen here hobnobbing in London when the NAC Orchestra toured the U.K. in 2014. (Fred Cattroll/National Arts Centre)

Paikin also valued Herrndorf’s open door policy, citing the “chairman’s breakfasts” where everyone was invited to speak their mind. 

“The one thing you never had to worry about when Peter Herrndorf was at the helm is whether he cared. You knew he cared,” Paikin said. “He was a true Renaissance man: journalism, the arts, culture.”

First journalism, then the arts

Herrndorf was born in Amsterdam, raised in Winnipeg, and got a political science and English degree from the University of Manitoba in 1962. He later studied law at Dalhousie University and obtained a master’s in administration from Harvard Business School, his biography on the NAC’s website said.

His parents moved to Winnipeg from Europe after the Second World War, he told the CBC’s Sunday Edition in a wide-ranging 2018 interview shortly after he stepped down from the NAC.

“Part of how I discovered being Canadian was by reading Canadian books [and] listening to CBC Radio,” he said. 

LISTEN | Herrndorf looks back on his storied life and career in 2018:

Sunday Edition37:36Peter Herrndorf on his illustrious career in the arts

As he prepares to leave the National Arts Centre, Peter Herrndorf talks about the rewards of a life in the arts, how he has pried funding from governments of all stripes, and why the CBC broke his heart.

Herrndorf started at the CBC as a reporter in Winnipeg. He eventually climbed the corporate ladder almost to the top, serving as vice-president and general manager of English radio and television from 1979 to 1983. 

He was involved in the development of programs such as The Fifth Estate, 90 Minutes Live and The Journal, and he also moved the national TV news from 11 to 10 p.m.

“Peter Herrndorf’s impact on and passion for Canada’s public broadcaster was profound,” Chuck Thompson, CBC’s head of public affairs, said in an emailed statement. “Beyond his huge influence on programming, he made a difference in so many careers and always with kindness, wisdom and a wonderful spirit.”

peter herrndorf renaissance man of canadian journalism and arts dead at 82 2
Herrndorf sat on the boards of dozens of arts institutions over the years. (CBC)

Mark Starowicz, who executive-produced The Journal during Herrndorf’s time at the CBC, said many Canadians have probably never heard of Herrndorf. 

“But he shaped our lives through what we saw on television in its greatest years and his tireless support of singers, writers, poets, orchestras and theatre,” Starowicz said. “He was the greatest defender and champion of Canadian culture of his generation.”

At TVO, Herrndorff helped the station shake off its reputation at the time as a “very pedagogical sort of teacher’s aide in the classroom,” Paikin said. 

“He’s the guy who said TVO needs to be in the business of doing a daily public affairs program, in primetime, live every evening. And that’s what we did.”

‘I will cherish his last letter to me,’ artistic director says

Over the course of his career, Herrndorf sat on the boards of about 60 arts organizations, ranging from the National Magazine Awards to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.

Antoni Cimolino, Stratford’s artistic director, said Herrndorf was a relentless clipper of articles he sent to friends.

“I will cherish his last letter to me only a month ago. The words of encouragement there will live on in my heart,” Cimolino said via email. 

By the time he took the helm of the NAC, one of North America’s only bilingual performing arts centre, in 1999, Herrndorf had a deep love of the arts, and a deep Rolodex too. 

“As we travelled across Canada, he had roots of some sort in several Canadian cities. He obviously built bridges everywhere he’d worked,” Deacon said.

Queen Elizabeth takes part in the unveiling of a statue of Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson, with Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore, second from left, and National Arts Centre President Peter Herrndorf, left, at the NAC in Ottawa on Wednesday June 30, 2010. Oscar Peterson's daughter Celine looks on at back. The royal couple is on a nine-day tour of Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
He was there when the late Queen Elizabeth visited the NAC in 2010. (The Canadian Press)

In addition to the NAC Foundation and its Indigenous Theatre Department, Deacon credits Herrndorf with overseeing the creation of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, the National Creation Fund, which supports the production of new works across the country, and the NAC’s scene festivals where the centre celebrated the culture and arts from different parts of Canada.

“Any one of those would be enough to distinguish someone’s career,” Deacon said. “The fact that he has half a dozen to his record just sets him apart.”

Herrndorf was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2008 for having “revolutionized Canadian broadcasting, publishing and the performing arts” at the various organizations where he served.

In 2017 he was promoted to the highest rank of the Order of Canada for his “visionary leadership” in Canada’s cultural landscape. 

He later received the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from former governor general Julie Payette during the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2018. 

The NAC’s flags will fly at half-mast all of February in his honour, the organization said in a news release. 

Governor General Julie Payette promotes Peter Herrndorf, of Ottawa, to Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall, Wednesday, January 24, 2018 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Former governor general Julie Payette promotes Herrndorf to Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall, on Jan. 24, 2018 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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