Richard D. Heffner was born in 1925 in New York City. He grew up in Tucson, Arizona and New York City, where he graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in 1942. He studied history at Columbia University, earning his B.A. and membership in Phi Beta Kappa in 1946 and M.A. in 1947.
Heffner went on to a career as a historian, educator and broadcaster. He wrote the renowned A Documentary History of the United States, in addition to editing Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and writing A Conversational History of Modern America. In 1964, Rutgers University President Mason Gross appointed Heffner as University Professor of Communications and Public Policy, a position he then held for almost fifty years.
In 1953, he entered broadcasting with a program about Franklin D. Roosevelt that included an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt. The success of the program propelled Heffner into broadcasting full time with programs such as History in the News, Man of the Year and Princeton '56, but he made his mark as the founder and host of The Open Mind, a nationally-broadcast public affairs interview program.
Beginning in 1956, Heffner hosted The Open Mind for fifty-six years until his death in 2013. Heffner recalls of the first episode featuring American historians William Leuchtenburg and Allan Nevins and political scientists Richard Neustadt and Lawrence Chamberlain, "You could see people and hear them dealing with other intellects, and it was a wonderful thing, and the notion of an 'open mind' ... the title was born for this sort of encounter." In over 1,500 programs, Heffner's guests included Martin Luther King, Mario Cuomo, Malcolm X, Elie Wiesel, Betty Friedan and Jonas Salk. His grandson Alexander Heffner took over as host in 2014.
Heffner took part in the creation of New York City's first public broadcasting station, Channel 13, and served as the vice president/general manager of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation. For two decades, he chaired the Motion Picture Association of America Classification and Ratings Administration. He died in 2013 at the age of eighty-eight.
The Rutgers Oral History Archives received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State. In the 2020-2022 cycle, this grant assisted the ROHA staff in making this oral history available to you for your use.
(Photo courtesy of Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program)