Hugh Downs, namesake of the school of human communication, dead at 99

Faculty and students remember Downs for his kindness and ability to listen

Hugh Downs, the longtime news anchor, television host and namesake of ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, passed away at the age of 99 on Wednesday.

His legacy at the school extends beyond just his name. When arriving at the fourth floor of the Stauffer Building, students, faculty and visitors see the awards and photos from the illustrious career of the man who helped redefine the school. 

Downs personified the ability to use communication skills to connect with people, and to make the most of what comes your way in life, faculty said.

Paul Mongeau, interim director at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, recalls Downs telling a student who asked for advice, “Alway remember this, all of life is plan B.”

His first job was at a radio station in Ohio, where he was born in1921. Beginning in the 1940’s and lasting until the end of the century, Downs would become a leading face and voice in American television. 

Opportunities to go into television would come after serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he would begin his news career on television as a broadcaster for NBC in Chicago, Mongeau said.  

Plans would change again in 1960, when Downs found himself leading "Tonight Starring Jack Paer."

Two years later he would leave Paer’s show and would serve as a co-host on NBC’s program “Today” from 1962 to 1971 and on ABCs “20/20” from 1978 to 1999. He would also host the game show “Concentration” from 1958 to 1969.

“The reason his shows were so interesting and the reason they were so captivating is because the communication was so good,” said Amira de la Garza, an associate professor at the Downs school. “So I think in that way he was such a great exemplar of what our school stands for and why having his name on our school is not just the kind of thing where somebody's name gets put on a school, the name actually is connected to what the school means.”

When the Department of Communication, a program originally within the College of Public Programs, was set to become its own school in 1999, the University knew it “wanted to name the school for someone who represented in every respect the qualities of human communication." 

"And Hugh Downs was the name by a country mile,” said former ASU President Lattie Coor.

“I was overwhelmed with the honor of having a school named after me and I have had so much satisfaction and gratification being connected with ASU in this way,”  Downs said about the naming, according to the school's website. “I didn’t realize until then that I had been devoted to communication of some sort for quite a while in broadcasting because if you don’t make yourself clear, then you are not communicating.”

De la Garza also said Downs was the perfect namesake for the school. 

“It provided a name for us that exemplifies the standard for what we do and connected the fact that communication is about the way we engage with the world around us,” de la Garza said. “He set the standard for us.”

Over the years, Downs would visit with students and appear in classes, de la Garza said. Despite his stature, Downs never made talking to students about himself, instead, he focused on getting to know the students.

“They thought they were meeting him, but really he came to meet them,” she said.

Marcelino Quiñonez, director of educational outreach and partnerships at ASU and a 2014 graduate from the Herberger Institute, met Downs in 2012 when de la Garza invited Downs to meet him and others while Quiñonez was running to become a school board member for the Roosevelt School District.

Every Friday night growing up, Quiñonez watched Downs and Barbara Walters on “20/20.” 

“I remember just telling him the story,” Quiñonez said. “What was so remarkable about Mr. Downs is how attentive he was to me and how much he wanted to ask me questions and how much he wanted to know about what I was doing. It just shows you the kind of human being he was."

The Associated Press reported Downs died at his home in Scottsdale of natural causes, according to his great-niece, Molly Shaheen. 

Downs' wife, Ruth Shaheen Downs, died in 2017 at the age of 95. They are survived by their two children; two grandchildren; four great-grandchildren and Hugh Downs' brother.

“We are proud to be of the school that has his name and to have known him because he was a great human being,” Mongeau said.


Reach the reporter at wmyskow@asu.edu and follow @wmyskow on Twitter. 

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