Dick Heller, a longtime sports columnist, reporter and copy editor for The Washington Times and other newspapers, died Thursday of complications from lung cancer. He was 76.
A Northwest Washington native, Heller began working for newspapers when he was in high school, covering high school sports for The Washington Daily News. He also worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Alexandria Gazette before joining The Washington Star, where he covered University of Maryland athletics until the newspaper closed in 1981.
“I just think he was a great and honest writer, and I had a good relationship with him,” said Lefty Driesell, who coached Maryland’s men’s basketball team from 1969-86. “He was a friend. He respected people, he liked people. He was just what you’d call a great person.”
Following a stint at The Miami Herald, Heller joined The Washington Times in 1986, and he became a columnist in the early 1990s. He remained with the newspaper until it folded its sports section in December 2009, then contributed bi-weekly columns for a time after the section returned in March 2011.
“When Times sports returned from its hiatus, we had the pleasure of using Dick’s columns,” said sports editor Mike Harris. “His writing showed great passion and insight. He added a lot to our pages.
“But even more important, Dick was an outstanding person and I really enjoyed getting to know him. Like many others, I feel a tremendous sense of loss with his passing.”
Rick Snider, a reporter at The Times from 1985-2005, said Heller’s devotion to fairness and accuracy always came through in his work. Snider recalled receiving a phone call one night from Heller, who chided him for using consecutive gerunds in a sentence.
“Dick Heller was the best copy editor I’ve ever encountered,” Snider said. “He cared about every word in a story. He cared how the page looked. He cared whether the paper was delivered to readers on time. He was the complete newspaperman.”
ESPN baseball writer Tim Kurkjian, another former colleague, echoed those sentiments.
“Dick Heller wasn’t just a terrific writer, he was the best editor I ever had in the newspaper business,” Kurkjian wrote in an e-mail. “When I was with the Washington Star 1978-81, Dick was a tremendously helpful to all the young writers, he made us better writers, he made us better reporters. His attention to detail was legendary, he was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. Long after The Star folded, I stayed in close touch with Dick. We’d go to lunch. He would make me laugh. Not many people could make me laugh like he could.”
Baseball was Heller’s greatest passion, and after his retirement from The Times, he continued to write and edit pieces for TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com.
“Dick was one of the first people I met when I started working at The Times, and I immediately realized just how much he loved baseball and the idea of baseball returning to Washington some day,” said Mark Zuckerman, who covered the Nationals for The Times from their inception in 2005 through 2009 and continues to do so for CSN Washington.
“I’ll always remember how thrilled he was to cover the first Nationals game at RFK Stadium, and then the first playoff game at Nationals Park. He was an invaluable resource for me starting out in the business and a genuinely nice man to boot.”
Heller, born Jan. 10, 1938, is survived by his wife, Kathleen, his daughter, Chris, his sons, Patrick and Michael, and two grandchildren, Ayla and Devin.
A wake will be held Monday, March 24 at Collins Funeral Home in Silver Spring, Md., from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. and 7 p.m.-9 p.m. The funeral will be Tuesday, March 25 at 10:30 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring.