Longtime host of public television’s 'The Open Mind'

Richard Heffner
Richard Heffner, University professor of communication and public policy, 1925-2013.

Richard Heffner, University Professor of communication and public policy at Rutgers, and host of the public television interview show The Open Mind, died Dec. 17 at his home in New York City of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, his son, Daniel Heffner, said. He was 88 years old.

Heffner taught at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information for nearly 50 years. Before coming to Rutgers, he taught history and political science at the University of California, Sarah Lawrence College, the New School for Social Research and New York University. He was teaching two courses at the time of his death, “Communication and Human Values” in the School of Arts and Sciences and “Mass Communication and the American Image” in the School of Communication and Information.

It was as the host of The Open Mind from 1956 until his death that Heffner was known best. He usually sat down with one or two guests, ranging from Margaret Mead to Malcolm X to President Jimmy Carter, and gently asked pointed questions, looking directly at them, listening carefully and digesting their answers before asking his next question. His interviews were often topical. In 1963, after the assassination in Mississippi of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, he sat down with four civil rights leaders -- Wyatt Tee Walker, James Farmer, Alan Morrison and Malcolm X -- to discuss the state of race relations in America.

It was a familiar technique to his students. In a statement to those students, his colleague Matt Matsuda, dean of the honors program in the School of Arts and Sciences, said: “But what he loved most was teaching. Why else would he have continued to work with honors long after many others would have retired? Great students were his inspiration and his joy.”

“Dick Heffner was a valued member of our community who taught generations of students in communication, journalism and media studies, said Claire McInerney, dean of the School of Communication and Information. “He was a major contributor to the understanding of media and their role in a democratic society. He was a sweet man whose intelligence always shone through, whether he was on camera or in a lunchtime conversation.”

Richard Douglas Heffner was born in New York City in 1925 and received his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University. Heffner was the author of A Documentary History of the United States, which first appeared in 1952 and went through its 11th edition this year. He edited Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America and was the author of A Conversational History of Modern America (Carroll & Graf, 2003).

Heffner leaves his wife, Elaine; his sons, Daniel and Andrew, and their wives, Beth and Carla; and grandchildren Alexander, Jeremy, Zachary and Sophia. His family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to New York’s public television station, WNET, Channel 13, which Heffner helped to found. Checks should be made out to WNET, with the notation that it is for “the continuing production of Richard Heffner’s The Open Mind.” WNET/Channel 13, the Educational Broadcasting Company, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Checks should be sent to Ms. Patricia Hayes, Grants Management Specialist, 825 Fifth Ave., 14th Floor, New York, New York 10022.