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Hugh Downs frequently heard himself introduced as “a legend in broadcasting” — an accolade he was quick to wave away. “Words like that tend to pop up if you’ve been around a long time, particularly if you haven’t been thrown out,” he told an interviewer in 2002, at age 81. “The industry’s been very kind to me. The audiences have been very kind to me. I’m grateful to them.”
It was a loyalty that was always mutual. “My first allegiance is to that person tuned in,” Downs said. “After that, to the network or station, agency or client. I shocked a Madison Avenue-type once by saying that. He told me, ‘You just don’t know where the bread is buttered.’ I said, ‘The bread wouldn’t be buttered for me if the audience didn’t believe that I believe what I’m saying and trying to deal honestly with them.’”
Downs was a five-time Emmy Award-winning American broadcaster, author, host and founding voice in modern American media. He died peacefully in his Scottsdale home surrounded by his family on July 1 at the age of 99, but his name and legacy are thriving at Arizona State University.
“Hugh Downs was a man of great integrity who was an exemplar of the very best of journalism, America’s Fourth Estate,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “His passing saddens the entire ASU community. His name is synonymous with the complex role of human communication and the university will continue to honor his impact through educating future leaders in this field through the college that bears his name. We offer our condolences to his family, his friends, and all he touched through his engagement on issues of impact in the times in which we live. Notwithstanding his loss, his impact will live on.”
His pursuit of honest communication is the reason Downs was asked in 1999 to lend his name to a new school in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is dedicated to studying and understanding the complex processes involved in everyday communication.
“We are all deeply saddened by the news of Hugh Downs’ passing," said Paul Mongeau, professor and interim director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. “We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know him and learn from him. As a consummate communicator, he had a unique ability to reach people in small groups or large, with charm and grace. He will be greatly missed by the entire Hugh Downs School community. We would like to express our deepest condolences to Hugh’s family in this extremely difficult time for us all.”
Students and faculty were impressed with Downs’ enthusiasm for engaging with each of them when he visited the classroom and school events. Always eager to share what he learned in the many experiences of his long life, Downs chose ASU to house his collection of memorabilia. More than 650 personal and professional items are curated by the Hugh Downs School to promote the pursuit of studies related to the field of human communication, promote constructive dialogue and scholarly research related to the life and career of the school’s distinguished namesake, and generally promote effective communication between individuals in all aspects of life.
“When the ASU School of Human Communication was established, the obvious choice for its namesake was Hugh Downs, one of the most respected broadcasters of the preceding half century,” ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig said. “The university sought to establish a center where communication was acknowledged, studied and treasured as central to human coexistence and progress, and Hugh’s career was the personification of those values. You could see how much Hugh cherished that interaction during his visits to the school. In a room full of starstruck students and professors, the person having the best time was Hugh.”
During ASU Homecoming week in 2012, Downs was featured in an interview and Q&A event at the school. He told the audience, “I was so honored to have this school named after me. That's been a kind of a second career for me. I just love being connected with the school. And the privilege of talking to students at times, that's kind of the high point for me.”
Downs is survived by his son and daughter, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife, Ruth, preceded him in death in 2017 at the age of 95.
Top photo: Hugh Downs speaks about his personal and professional collection of 650 items that he donated to ASU in 2013. Courtesy Arizona State University.