Updated: Friday, March 21 at 1:48 p.m. — memorial service details can be found at bottom of page.
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Washington, D.C. sports media has lost one of its own: Dick Heller.
The renowned Washington Times columnist, reporter and copy editor passed away from complications from lung cancer at the age of 76 on Thursday.
Heller, a D.C. native, was regarded as a mentor to many within the industry who would go on to flourish within the sports landscape, in and around the beltway, and beyond.
“He really was kind of this avuncular Walter Cronkite figure in a way,” said once understudy and Times colleague of 23 years David Elfin, of Heller, a revered figure in D.C. media.
Elfin, who first kept quarters with his parents after returning home to join Heller in writing at The Times, recalled, vividly and fondly, the late night phone calls he’d receive in those early years.
“The phone would ring and my mom would answer, and she would say it was ‘kindly old Dick Heller,’” he said. “She thought he was like 70 … he was 45 years old.”
Another Times colleague, Rick Snider, reminisced of Heller as “a real newspaper man” who placed specific focus on each word he wrote, and every last word he edited.
“It took a lot of yelling as an old-school journalist, but he finally taught me to write a decent story,” Snider said. “I owe everything I have to Dick teaching me the business and I will miss my mentor greatly.”
Heller was not only instrumental to the careers of his own colleagues; he was responsible for the success of others beyond The Times’ margins.
Of those remembering and thanking Heller are four radio hosts – Eric Bickel, John-Paul Flaim, Jason Bishop and John Auville — of D.C.-based radio show “The Sports Junkies” (or The Junkies, to which they’re more colloquially referred), who credit Heller with discovering them, going on 18 years ago, and singlehandedly launching their media careers.
In 1996, the Junkies were hosting a cable access television show out of Bowie, Md., had filmed 16 episodes, and were seeking feedback from an unbiased critic within the media.
“So in February of 1996, I called the Washington Times and asked to speak to Dick,” Flaim explained. “Though he expressed his doubts about the quality of a cable access television show, he thought the story of four friends pursuing a passion was interesting.”
“Dick Heller wrote about our cable access show for The Washington Times,” Bickel tweeted Thursday, upon learning of Heller’s passing. “[106.7] WJFK saw it, and that day invited us to do a demo.”
That article – entitled “Sports Junkies: Four Longtime Buddies Talking Up a Storm on Uninhibited Cable-Access Show in Bowie” – ran in The Times on Monday, March 25, 1996.
Here’s an excerpt from Heller’s piece in The Times:
These four guys had been talking sports since they were kids, see, and they thought it would be cool to do it on TV. So they got this show on a cable-access station – sort of like Wayne and Garth – and now they’re knocking ’em dead all across Bowie.
It wasn’t quite that simple, but almost. And guess what? Their show, “The Sports Junkies,” is good – very good, in fact. Original programs and reruns are shown on Bowie Community Television on Tuesdays at 4 p.m., Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. and Fridays at 9 p.m.
The Junkies had no certain future in radio prior to Heller’s article. Then all in their mid-twenties, the four childhood friends were still weighing what to do with the rest of their lives.
While solidifying their on-air personalities, more in concept than in practice, two of them – Bickel (EB) and Flaim (JP) – were pursuing further education: Bickel, a master’s degree at Maryland, and Flaim, a law degree at Temple.
The others – Bishop (Lurch) and Auville (Cakes) – earned their bachelor’s degrees, from Salisbury and Towson, respectively, and had already entered the work force, the latter in management at Toys “R” Us.
After Heller’s article ran — later that same day, actually — the Junkies received a call from then-WJFK assistant program director Jim McClure — now a producer for Howard Stern – offering them a tryout.
Their on-air chemistry was instantly evident, and the Junkies were given their first regular timeslot on the radio – Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on WJFK’s “New Sports Weekend.”
One year later, they were hired full-time to replace The Greaseman on weeknights.
“His article brought us to the attention of the WJFK brass, who gave a group of friends a shot in the radio business,” Auville said. “The Junkies are forever indebted to Dick Heller.”
Since being found by Heller, the Junkies have risen to unforeseen heights through the local radio scene – cultivating a cult following from the onset, which quickly developed into a vast, rabid fanbase which has helped them to overcome multiple format changes. They even parlayed their success into a television show.
“Without Dick, I’m 100 percent certain we never would have worked professionally in radio or television,” Bickel said.
Those who knew Heller were deeply saddened by his loss, and will remember him for his passion for his craft, compassion for others and love for his family.
“He really cared about the people he worked with,” Elfin said. “He cared about this place being a better planet; he cared about his hometown, Washington, deeply, and about his teams.”
“Rest in peace, Dick — a good man, an unforgettable character. You will be missed.”
Heller, as noted in The Washington Times, was born Jan. 10, 1938, and is survived by his wife, Kathleen, his daughter, Chris, his sons, Patrick and Michael, and two grandchildren, Ayla and Devin.
Memorial Service Details:
Viewings will be held Monday at the Collins Funeral Home in Silver Spring. The funeral service will be held Tuesday at St. John the Baptist Church in Silver Spring beginning at 10:30 a.m.