Skip to main content

Peter Herrndorf, CEO of the National Arts Centre, at the newly renovated section of National Art Centre on Feb. 27, 2018, in Ottawa.Dave Chan/For The Globe and Mail

Peter Herrndorf didn’t know a word of English in 1947, when, at six years old, he boarded the ship in Rotterdam that would take his family to New York City, but music gave him a way in. On the voyage across the Atlantic, he listened repeatedly to a pair of tunes on the American hit parade: I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover by Art Mooney and His Orchestra, and Yes! We Have No Bananas by The Starlighters and Earl Hagen’s Orchestra. “By the time we landed in New York, I knew all the lyrics,” he told The Globe and Mail in a 2018 interview. “That was my introduction to American culture.”

If the arts helped unlock the language, joys and mysteries of the New World for that little Dutch boy, he repaid the favour infinitely, moving through Canada’s corridors of soft power to become one of the most influential and visionary broadcasting and arts executives of his generation.

In a career that spanned more than five decades, Mr. Herrndorf brought daring change and innovation to the CBC, saved TVOntario from privatization and turned the moribund National Arts Centre into a genuinely national hub of creativity that was celebrated from coast to coast to coast and, perhaps most impressively, by members of all political parties.

He was dubbed “the godfather of Canadian arts” and “Canada’s cultural turnaround artist.”

He believed culture was integral to citizenship. “Without being highfalutin about it,” Mr. Herrndorf told The Globe in a 2003 interview, “the arts are nation-building without politics, without a constitution, without laws, and in a way that people really understand it.”

Peter Herrndorf receives the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from then-Governor-General Julie Payette during the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 1, 2018.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

He died of cancer in the early hours of Saturday, surrounded by his family at Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto. He was 82 years old.

Peter Alexander Herrndorf was born Oct. 27, 1940, in Amsterdam to the banking executive Hellmut (Bobby) Herrndorf and the former Anne-Marie (Mimi) Erlich, a German Jew who had fled Berlin in 1938 and lived under false papers during the Second World War. The country was in turmoil, and Peter never got his Dutch citizenship.

Two years after the city’s liberation, the family left for New York, where they stayed for a time with Hellmut’s boss, a Jewish banker who had fled the Netherlands when war broke out. But with U.S. citizenship looking unlikely, the family took a train in early 1948 to Winnipeg, where Hellmut’s older brother had settled. They arrived, Peter Herrndorf said later, “on a day when it was 35 below zero, and my parents thought they had made a terrible mistake.” Even worse, when Hellmut tried to order a dry martini at the Fort Garry Hotel to celebrate their safe arrival, he was denied: It was the Lord’s Day.

The city eventually proved more welcoming, and the country did, too: Canada granted young Peter his citizenship at age 13, around the time he got his confirmation in the United Church. Still, he struggled. He was an unfocused student, telling The Globe later that he “had a lot of problems when I was 15 or 16. I didn’t respond all that well to externally imposed discipline, and decided some time in my late teens that I would rather apply that discipline to myself than have it applied to me.”

That streak of rebelliousness remained, but Mr. Herrndorf learned to channel it. “I still have a strong soft spot for the underdog, the kid who doesn’t fit in properly,” he explained in that interview. “That may bear some relation to my fondness for the CBC. We have a lot of people here who are sort of out at the elbows.”

Mr. Herrndorf graduated from the University of Manitoba in political science and English and, after earning a law degree from Dalhousie, joined CBC Winnipeg in 1965 as an editor and reporter. He moved to Edmonton, then Toronto to work in current affairs, catching the eye of executives and convincing them to send him for management training at Harvard Business School.

The experience of living in the U.S. during the upheaval of the late 1960s was a rush for the political junkie. “He was interested in the mechanism and strategies of change and reform,” said Mark Starowicz, a former CBC producer and close friend, in a recent interview. “And he was a huge admirer of Bobby Kennedy.” He considered staying – according to a colourful 1996 Toronto Life profile of Mr. Herrndorf, there were entreaties from at least a couple of U.S. media outlets – but he had promised the CBC he would return, and besides, he felt strongly about Canada and public broadcasting.

MC Colm Feore (left), guest of honour Peter Herrndorf, NAC Orchestra music director Alexander Shelley and NAC orchestra manager Nelson McDougall in 2018.Fred Cattroll

He came home in 1970 to serve as the special assistant to the head of the English network. In 1974, he was appointed head of TV current affairs programming, where he oversaw the creation of such shows as the fifth estate and 90 Minutes Live, and popular documentaries on the October Crisis and organized crime. By 1979, he had become vice-president of English-language radio and television networks: He was balding by then, but still regarded as a wunderkind.

And he was about to unleash a bold move that would define both him and the public broadcaster for the next decade. In the late 1970s, the Canadian networks and local U.S. stations all broadcast their news at 11 p.m. Mr. Herrndorf believed the CBC needed to stand alone, and, furthermore, that it had a responsibility to serve news and current affairs to the largest possible audience. “He always said, ‘We cannot be the public broadcaster and draw hundreds of millions of dollars from the public purse without being the predominant force for news and current affairs in the country,’” said Mr. Starowicz.

Mr. Herrndorf struck a study group, commissioned reams of research – audience strategies, public-relations strategies, regional strategies, budgets, an overhaul of newsgathering operations, which were then going all-electronic – and plotted out how to move the flagship newscast The National to 10 p.m. “This was the Normandy invasion of Canadian television,” said Mr. Starowicz, noting that the move would upset numerous fiefdoms: the network’s entertainment programmers, ad sales people, and the news department, since Mr. Herrndorf intended to give over the last 38 minutes of the hour-long broadcast to a new current-affairs show. “It was risky, to say the least.”

The new program debuted in January, 1982. The risk paid off, delivering an enormous new audience and helping The National and The Journal set the country’s agenda. But for Mr. Herrndorf, the joy was short-lived: He clashed with the incoming CBC president, Pierre Juneau, and by the fall of 1983, he resigned, reinventing himself as the publisher of Toronto Life magazine.

It was a good platform for his talents but it left him a little restless. He began taking on board positions – over his career, he would sit on about 60 of them – including as the president of the Stratford Festival board of governors. And he continued to build up a collection of contacts that would eventually stretch to 1,700 across seven actual Rolodexes. (Mr. Herrndorf never did get a cellphone.)

Every one of those contacts would get a hand-signed Christmas card; hundreds of them would also get a phone call on their birthday, to be personally serenaded with the Happy Birthday song by Mr. Herrndorf. All of this took time, energy and sacrifice – he famously worked 80-hour weeks and spent Sundays scouring newspapers and magazines for articles to clip and send out to contacts – but he wore it well. “His work is his life, and his hobby is his work,” Kealy Wilkinson, a former TVOntario board member, told Toronto Life.

“Herrndorf has all the qualities for private corporate success,” noted Rick Salutin, in a 1996 Globe column. “But something culturally Canadian in him needs to do public service. Even during his private-sector time as publisher at Toronto Life magazine, he poured his energy into creating the Toronto Arts Foundation, as if he couldn’t live with himself if he wasn’t making a social contribution.”

In 1992, Premier Bob Rae named Mr. Herrndorf the CEO and chair of TVOntario, where, taking a page from his work at the CBC, he set out to transform a respected but slightly sleepy institution into a vital part of the conversation. That fall, he hired reporter Steve Paikin away from CBC Toronto to anchor a new show about Queen’s Park. Two years later Mr. Paikin became a co-host, with Mary Hynes, of a new nightly current-affairs show, Studio 2.

As at the CBC, Mr. Herrndorf engaged in what he called “managing by walking around” at TVO. “He was constantly dropping into people’s offices,” said Mr. Paikin, during a recent interview. “Not to interfere, but to convey the impression that the most important person in the company cared about what we were doing. It was wonderful.

“He just loved ‘talent.’ He loved to hang out with the people who put the shows on. Which he found, being in the company of quirky, talented, bizarre, driven, ambitious, inquisitive people. He found that inspiring.”

In 1995, the Progressive Conservative Party swept to power in Ontario under Mike Harris, who promised to slash spending and privatize a swath of government-owned operations, including TVO. Mr. Herrndorf spun his Rolodexes and worked the backrooms – and never spoke ill of those who posed an existential threat to TVO.

David Lindsay, who managed Premier Harris’s office, recalled on Saturday that Mr. Herrndorf “was always positive about the things that TVOntario was contributing to the public policy discourse, to the education of children. He was always inviting politicians, ministers and political chiefs of staff and people like me to openings, to events that were happening at the TVOntario offices.”

Mr. Lindsay said he would frequently receive op-eds clipped from The New York Times that Mr. Herrndorf thought might interest him. “It was just to keep the line of communications open, an opportunity to chat and engage. He always just smothered you with interest and kindness and intellectual stimulation, and assumed you would come to realize that TVOntario had a value. And I certainly came to realize Peter had an incredible value for Canada and for Ontario.”

In time, the Tories dropped the idea of privatizing the network, though Mr. Herrndorf did have to preside over significant job cuts.

In 1999, he left TVO and was touted as the likely new head of what was then the Toronto Hospital Foundation. Instead, he took a smaller salary and became president and CEO of the National Arts Centre, commuting to Ottawa every Monday morning and returning Friday night to be with his wife, the CBC executive Eva Czigler, and their teenaged children, Katherine and Matthew.

Under his leadership, the performing arts centre on the Rideau Canal established the NAC Centre Foundation, which has raised more than $170-million since 2000 to take shows across the country, spearheaded the creation of the NAC Indigenous Theatre, oversaw the beginning of the building’s acclaimed $225-million renovation, and founded the National Creation Fund, dedicated to new work.

Mr. Herrndorf and Ms. Czigler “were arts world royalty, presiding over the spreading of culture across Canada,” said retired Supreme Court justice Rosalie Abella, a close friend who officiated at their wedding in 1980, which was held in her chambers. (In fact, Mr. Herrndorf had to push the ceremony back a few hours, because the CBC board meeting where he was pressing his case for The National/Journal overhaul ran long.)

Peter Herrndorf stepped down from the NAC in 2018.Dave Chan

“Peter presided over Ottawa, I would say not just over the arts world,” Ms. Abella. “He was the maitre d’ at the National Arts Centre. He was the person who built it up into the irresistible institution that it became in Ottawa. And so much of Ottawa life centred around Peter and the National Arts Centre, and his willingness to be there every single night and every single day, and always thinking about new ways to make it relevant and interesting, to attract young people, older people, varieties of music, varieties of theatre.

“His mind seemed to be endlessly creative, and he was fearless. The idea that ‘we’ve never done it this way’ is, for some people, the end of the conversation. For him, it was just the beginning.”

He stepped down from the NAC in 2018, though he didn’t exactly retire, taking up the position of chair of the Toronto arts festival Luminato.

Mr. Herrndorf leaves Ms. Czigler; daughter, Katherine; son, Matthew and his wife, Agustina, and their three-month-old son, Nicolas. He also leaves his brother, Fred; his sister, Catherine (“Kiki”) Delaney and her husband, Ian; and many nieces and nephews.

On Saturday, as word spread across Canada of Mr. Herrndorf’s death, Ms. Czigler said she received “a flood of e-mails about how he had affected people’s lives” – everyone from a former governor-general to the limousine driver who regularly ferried Mr. Herrndorf to and from the Toronto airport – writing of his “kindness and curiosity.”

One of the reasons Mr. Herrndorf was upset when he stopped smoking some years ago, Ms. Czigler recalled, was that “he was bemoaning that, ‘Oh my God, I can’t go outside any more and smoke with the stagehands, smoke with the props guys. Because they’re my buddies.’ He just had an unbelievable gift for spreading kindness everywhere.”