Peter Herrndorf was a dream publisher, my boss and my friend

Peter Herrndorf was a dream publisher, my boss and my friend

I worked with him at Toronto Life in the late 1980s and early 1990s and marvelled at his passion for arts and media in this country. In his 82 years on the planet, he did more for Canadian culture than probably anyone alive

Photograph by Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It’s hard to think what to add to Michael Enright’s assessment of Peter Herrndorf: “Probably the most important figure in Canadian culture.” Or to the National Arts Centre’s take: “One of Canada’s greatest cultural leaders.” These pronouncements may sound like hyperbole, but in Peter’s case, they’re almost an understatement. True, he did disappoint his dad in 1965, when he finished law school at Dalhousie—and joined the CBC the next day. And the CBC disappointed him in 1983, when, as vice-president of English television services, he clashed with president Pierre Juneau—it was clear there was no longer a place for him. One long-time staff member called his abrupt departure “a supreme disaster.” As Enright said, Herrndorf was the “best president the CBC didn’t have.”

Instead, several weeks after leaving the Crown corporation behind, he switched mediums and became publisher of Toronto Life. The guy who had had three TV sets in his executive office moved into a tatty third-floor walk-up space at Front and Church with zero TVs and many mice. If you stood in the wrong place, you might be dripped on—water or tar, depending on the day. The whole office smelled of cigarette smoke, and one of the smokers was Peter. The place was just the same when I joined the magazine as executive editor five years later. The wall that faced the reception area was glass, so we could see what Peter was doing any time we looked. And what he was usually doing was consulting one of his four massive Rolodexes, the analogue equivalent of a smartphone contact list, or talking on the phone to one of the who’s who listed there. He would say, “I learned to network before it was a verb.”

Peter’s 11 years at Toronto Life were during a golden age for magazines generally and, under Peter’s watch, Toronto Life specifically. During his tenure, it won magazine of the year at the National Magazine Awards twice and received many, many writing awards. Due in good part to Peter’s charm, persuasiveness and titanic work ethic, it sold the most ad pages ever—issues were routinely 200-plus pages; today the average is closer to 90. Its circulation rose 50 per cent. The revenue he brought in allowed us to run novella-length articles that writers were given a year and $50,000 to produce.

It was a golden age for staff too. There was a baseball team. We were comped tickets to Canadian Stage performances. The company had Blue Jays season tickets that were up for grabs. There was a strict church-and-state separation between the editorial and advertising sides. And there was Peter’s management-by-walking-around style, giving us the feeling that we were truly valued and listened to.

Meanwhile, in addition to his prodigious work as publisher, there were his many extracurriculars: the Stratford Festival, the City and Regional Magazine Association, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, the Festival of Festivals (now TIFF), the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the Toronto Arts Awards—the list goes on. Iconic CBC producer Mark Starowicz once said, “Peter is definitely not a believer in the Lord’s Day Act.” Almost any time I was in the office on a weekend, Peter was there, working the phones, reading magazines and newspapers by the dozens, buffing connections, coming up with new ways to promote Toronto Life.

If it was December, he might be writing notes in the hundreds of Christmas cards he sent out every year. At any time, he could be clipping newspaper articles to mail to people he thought might find them interesting. In 1990, we ran a cover story called “Blue Boxes of the Rich and Famous” that involved surreptitiously scooping people’s recycling bins and reporting the contents. The blue bin of then Toronto Star editor-in-chief John Honderich included a sheaf of clips from Peter.

Many of us cried when Peter announced, in 1992, that he had been lured away by TVO to serve as chairman and CEO. Peter cried too. When he revealed that he was resigning from the public broadcaster, in 1998, there were tears as well. He had been instrumental, the Globe and Mail said, in transforming Canada’s second-largest public broadcaster into “a leading force in documentary, children’s and current-affairs programming.” Seven months later, a Globe editorial cheered Peter’s appointment as director general and CEO of the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa, congratulating the federal government for its choice—“an excellent match of candidate [and] job.” In his new gig, Peter set about, as he would say, “putting the National back in the National Arts Centre.” The 2,500-word bio on the NAC website suggests how successful he was at that.

Since his death, it’s been hard to miss accounts detailing Peter’s immense contributions to journalism, broadcasting and the arts—tributes citing the breadth and depth of his professional accomplishments, his many honours, and his extraordinary record of volunteerism in the cultural sphere. The NAC site lists close to two dozen committees and boards he served on while there.

So, yes, professionally, he was incredibly accomplished, passionate and driven—and there have been countless beneficiaries of that drive—but when I think about my old boss, I mostly think about what a flat-out thoughtful, generous, unpretentious man he was. I recall his deep sympathy when he found out that my husband had lung cancer: we had both left Toronto Life by then, but Peter made a point of calling me to say how much he was thinking of us. Or the time he wrote a reference letter for me that virtually shone on the page. Or those Christmas cards I received, always with a thoughtful personal note—maybe a mention of an article I had edited that he particularly liked.

I went looking for other examples and heard about the time he spent counselling a friend, whom he’d just met, on how to get her book published. Filmmaker Peter Raymont told me how Peter would call him every year and sing “Happy Birthday.” And, in my family, there’s my sister’s story of attending a Blue Jays game, occupying one of Toronto Life’s seats. When a man sat down next to her, she asked brightly, “Oh, my sister works at Toronto Life. Are you there too?”

He politely introduced himself: “I’m Peter Herrndorf.”

Lynn Cunningham is a writer, editor and associate professor emerita at Toronto Metropolitan University.