Peter Herrndorf, “Renaissance man” of Canadian journalism and art, died at 82

Peter Herrndorf, former President and CEO of the National Arts Centre, stands in the NAC's Southam Hall in Ottawa in 2012.  He died on Saturday February 18, 2023 at the age of 82.  (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press - photo credit)

Peter Herrndorf, former President and CEO of the National Arts Centre, stands in the NAC’s Southam Hall in Ottawa in 2012. He died on Saturday February 18, 2023 at the age of 82. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press – photo credit)

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

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

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

Herrndorf joined CBC in Winnipeg in 1965, eventually becoming vice president, where he helped develop long-running series, including The Fifth Estate And The diary.

He later served as editor of Toronto Life magazine and as chairman and CEO of TVO.

Then, in 1999, he began a nearly 19-year tenure as President and CEO of the National Arts Center (NAC), where he also helped establish the National Arts Center Foundation and its Indigenous Theater department.

What held this diverse and storied career together was Herrndorf’s passion for storytelling, said Christopher Deacon, who succeeded Herrndorf as head of NAC in 2018.

“Whether it’s a big story that kicks off the evening news or a story that captivates 2,000 people watching an opera or a play, the common thread has been the way we tell stories to communicate, to give meaning find and share that meaning and community,” Deacon told CBC on Saturday.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

While calling Herrndorf a “brilliant” arts administrator, Deacon said he’s perhaps even more notable for his kindness and outspokenness. He pointed to Herrndorf’s daily routine of rubbing shoulders with everyone from stagehands to performers in the NAC’s “green room” or canteen.

“He saw it as a kind of crossroads where everyone met as equals,” Deacon said. “I had the great pleasure of watching him do it. Peter used social skills to drive an agenda for the institution.”

Love for deep conversations

Steve Paikin, the presenter of TVO’s flagship current affairs program, The agendasaid he owes his long career at TVO to Herrndorf and will 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 engage my senses in 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.'”

Fred Cattroll/National Arts Center

Fred Cattroll/National Arts Center

Paikin also appreciated Herrndorf’s open-door policy, pointing to the “Chairman’s Breakfast” where everyone was invited to offer their opinions.

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

First journalism, then art

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

His parents moved to Winnipeg from Europe after World War II, he told the CBCs Sunday edition in a wide-ranging interview in 2018, shortly after he resigned from the NAC.

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

HEAR | Herrndorf looks back on his eventful life and career in 2018:

Herrndorf started out at the CBC as a reporter in Winnipeg. Eventually he climbed the career ladder almost to the top, serving as vice-president and managing director of English radio and television from 1979 to 1983.

He was involved in the development of programs such as The Fifth Stand, 90 Minutes Live And The diaryand he also moved the national television news from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m

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



Mark Starowicz, who served as executive producer The diary during Herrndorf’s time at CBC, said many Canadians have probably never heard of Herrndorf.

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

At TVO, Herrndorff helped the network shake off its reputation at the time as “a very educational type of classroom assistant,” Paikin said.

“He’s the guy who said TVO must be in business doing a daily public affairs program, every night in prime time. And that’s what we did.”

“I will honor his last letter to me,” says the artistic director

Throughout his career, Herrndorf has served on the boards of some 60 arts organizations, from the National Magazine Awards to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.

Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino said Herrndorf was a relentless editor of items he mailed to friends.

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

When he took over as director of NAC, one of the only bilingual performing arts centers in North America, in 1999, Herrndorf had a deep love of art and a deep Rolodex as well.

“When we traveled around Canada, he had roots in several Canadian cities. He’s obviously built bridges everywhere he’s worked,” Deacon said.

The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press

In addition to the NAC Foundation and its Indigenous Theater division, Deacon Herrndorf credits NAC 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 scene festivals where the Center has celebrated the culture and arts from different parts of Canada.

“Any of these would be enough to mark a person’s career,” Deacon said. “The fact that he has half a dozen on his account just sets him apart.”

Herrndorf was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2008 for “revolutionizing Canadian broadcasting, publishing and the performing arts” in the various organizations in which he has served.

In 2017 he was promoted to the highest rank in 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 flags will fly at half-mast throughout February in his honor, the organization said in a press release.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press


Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button