Rutgers mourns the loss of Prof. Richard Heffner

Prof. Richard Heffner Photo © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Prof. Richard Heffner Photo © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

by AnnMarie Hartnett

Longtime Journalism and Media Studies Professor Richard Heffner was not simply “teaching” about media history; he was a piece of history himself.

Heffner, who died in December of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 88, interviewed the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem and never cowered from discussions of provocative and controversial issues.

His platform was the television show “The Open Mind,” the half-hour public affairs show that originated in 1956 with Heffner in the host’s chair. Originally seen on WNBC, “The Open Mind” moved to Channel 13 when Heffner helped negotiate the establishment of Channel 13 (it had been a failing commercial station in Newark) and became the station’s first general manager in 1961.

He had an impressive list of other accomplishments that included writing a book, The Documentary History of the United States, and serving as chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration for 20 years – the folks that label movies with a G, PG, R or X and other sub-categories.

During his tenure he introduced such ratings as PG-13 and NC-17. Heffner also led the rating board’s move to evaluate films for excessive violence along with sexual provocation.

“Parents were more concerned about the human body and sexuality in the 1960s,” Heffner told The Associated Press in 1986. “Today, the threat to family is violence and drug use. We’re tougher on violence and a mite less involved with the view of the human body.”

The Los Angeles Times called Heffner “the least-known most powerful person in Hollywood.”

However, Heffner was first and foremost a scholar with a passion for teaching. In fact, he had just finished his grades for the two courses he was teaching when he died.

He joined the faculty of Rutgers in 1964 and last held the title of University Professor of Communications and Public Policy. He commuted to New Brunswick once or twice a week from his home in Manhattan.

Heffner’s wife has been quoted saying that she always knew her husband would be a teacher until the day he died. Decades of J/MS students learned an immeasurable amount from this sweet, humble, dedicated and inspiring person.

Mass Communication and the American Image and Communication and Human Values were among the courses he was famous for on campus. Both of these conceptual courses integrated all of his areas of expertise and motivated students to look at media in a broader perspective in their relationship to history and politics.

Ron Miskoff, one of the teachers of Media Publishing and Design, took Mass Communication and the American Image with Heffner in the 1960s.

“I went to see him in his office one day, and on his wall was a picture of the presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy, who had been assassinated about six months before. The inscription read something like, ‘Thank you for being there in our darkest hour.’ It was signed by Kennedy’s wife, Ethel.”

Claire McInerney, acting dean of the School of Communication and Information, describes the reaction to his death: “We were shocked because he was an active teacher. We were extremely saddened. Words seem inadequate to describe it. Heffner’s experience in the fields of media, politics and history often provided the backbone for his classes.”

According to McInerney, “The Open Mind” showcased Heffner’s skills as a communicator. “He was someone who listens, someone who asks good questions and someone who has something to say,” noted McInerney. “He had opinions about things, informed opinions, but then he was open to hearing other peoples’ opinions.”

She noted that Heffner was an extremely respected and beloved staff member at SC&I who will be missed.

“He lived what he proposed,” said McInerney. “He lived his life according to how he thought people should be in the communication field.”

She added that it was a great fortune for Rutgers to have Heffner on staff as long as it did. “It was a very great loss to us in the school, but we all learned lessons from him that will carry forward.”

As a tribute to Heffner, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences will be setting up a lecture series in his memory. It seems a fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his life to learning and educating others.

“There has been a fund established for the lecture series, and it will be titled the Richard Heffner Lecture Series,” said McInerney.