Jim Hartz, NBC reporter and former ‘Today’ co-host, dies at 82


“The truth is that we went there just to check – friendly.”

This 1970s image released by NBC shows, clockwise from left foreground, Jim Hartz, Lew Wood, Gene Shalit and Barbara Walters of NBC News’ “Today” show in New York City. AP/NBC Photo

Jim Hartz, the low-key, folksy reporter who hosted the “Today” show with Barbara Walters in the mid-1970s, less than halfway through his three-decade television career, died April 17 in Fairfax County, in Virginia. He was 82 years old.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his wife, Alexandra Dickson Hartz, adding that he chose to be taken off the ventilator that was keeping him alive.

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Jim Hartz may have looked childish when he started work on the ‘Today’ show, aged 34, taking over from Frank McGee, who died months earlier at 58, but he was no newbie . He had already spent a decade in New York at WNBC, covering local stories, from John V. Lindsay’s town hall to Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral and all the way to the Watergate scandal.

The stories he covered on the “Today” show included the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the end of the Vietnam War, and the American bicentennial. But his “today” career lasted only two years.

Both on “Today” and in other broadcast work, Hartz has covered many space missions. He and television news pioneer John Chancellor were co-announcers in 1971 during the launch of Apollo 15, which led to a three-day lunar visit by astronauts. He was co-author of “Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future” (1997), with Rick Chappell, a former astronaut.

In a 1974 interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Hartz admitted that a NASA event was so upsetting to him that he would then have no recollection of what he said on air.

Recalling the first time he saw a Saturn rocket take off from Cape Kennedy in Florida on an Apollo mission, he said: “I just wasn’t prepared for this 36-story building to go up. flies straight off the platform into the air.”

James Leroy Hartz was born on February 3, 1940, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Reverend Marvin Dillard Hartz, an Assembly of God minister, and Helen Elvira (Potter) Hartz. He was their fifth child.

When Jim Hartz entered the University of Tulsa, his plan was to go to medical school, but it was half-hearted ambition. “I was under a lot of pressure from one of my brothers to become a doctor,” he told the Tulsa World half a century later. Around his first year, he said, he had to admit that he was much more interested in journalism.

His career debut was meteoric. By the time he graduated in 1962, he had already completed internships at local television and radio stations. He was hired as a reporter for KOTV in Tulsa that year and became the host of “Sun Up”, the channel’s morning show.

He was promoted to news director in 1964 (he was 24) and hired by NBC the same year. In New York, he became the evening news anchor on WNBC, the network’s flagship local station, and was, according to several sources, the youngest correspondent ever hired by the network.

The “Today” job came in 1974, when executives picked him to replace McGee, overriding Tom Brokaw and Tom Snyder, both seen as more dynamic figures and better known nationally. But Hartz’s laid-back style seemed to suit Walters better, who had been promoted to co-host after 13 years with the show and was determined, she said, not to give way to anyone.

When she announced in the spring of 1976 that she was leaving to become co-anchor of ABC’s evening news, however, NBC officials had to reevaluate.

They hired Jane Pauley, a relatively unknown 25-year-old whose voice sounded a lot like Walters’. Fearing that she and Hartz — two unassuming hosts — had less-than-glitter chemistry, NBC went back to Brokaw and persuaded him to accept the co-host job.

But Hartz wasn’t exactly fired; it was announced that he would be given a new job, as a traveling host of “Today”, reporting across the country. This arrangement was also short-lived.

From 1976 to 1979, he was a news anchor at the WRC, NBC’s Washington affiliate. He then worked with PBS, co-hosting “Over Easy”, a celebrity talk show, alongside actress Mary Martin, and “Innovation”, a weekly science show. In a 1985 review of “Innovation”, John Corry of The New York Times called the show “vaguely, but never unintelligently, joyful”. Just like its host.

In the early 1990s, Hartz was the host of “Asia Now”, a PBS co-production with NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, hailing from Tokyo. In 1993, he became chairman of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, headquartered in Oklahoma. He oversees the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore and the Will Rogers Birthplace in Oologah.

In 1960, while still in college, he married Norma Tandy, his Tulsa high school sweetheart who died in January, and they had three children. A year after their divorce in 1979, he married Alexandra Dickson, a social worker in Alexandria, Virginia.

She survives him, as do his two daughters, Jana Hartz Maher and Nancy Hartz Cole; six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His son, John Mitchell Hartz, died aged 52 in 2015.

The space program remained a fascination for Jim Hartz. At an Apollo 11 Project 20th Anniversary Gala in Houston, he described the 1969 moon landing in lofty terms, calling it “the grandest thing we could think of doing ‘at the time and praising’ what man can do with one mind and a clearly defined goal, but even that accomplishment could seem almost down to earth when he returned to his folksy way of talking about it.

“The truth is,” he said, “we just went there to check it out — friendly.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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