Frederick “Rick” Breitenfeld Jr., founding president of what is now Maryland Public Broadcasting, died of pancreatic cancer Sept. 28 at Abington Health Center in Warminster, Pa. The former Timonium resident was 87.
Born in New York City and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., he was the son of Frederick Breitenfeld, a patent attorney, and his wife, Dorothy Falk.
A 1949 graduate of New Rochelle High School, he obtained a bachelor of science in engineering and a master’s degree in education from Tufts University in Massachusetts.
He served in the Navy as an aviator from 1954 until 1958. He then taught physics and chemistry in North Creek, N.Y., and received a second master’s degree and a doctorate from Syracuse University. In 1963 he set up an Air Force test range television system at then-Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral.
In 1966 he became the first chief executive officer at what was called the Maryland Educational Cultural Commission, an agency funded by the state. It was later called the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.
He held the post when the center’s broadcast station with three studios was constructed at Owings Mills on what had been land administered by the Gwynnbrook State Game Farm. The station went on the air in 1969 and was called WMPB Channel 67.
He shepherded he station through its early years and added a transmitter in Annapolis in 1975. The station developed the popular PBS series “Wall Street Week” — sometimes referenced as “Wall $treet Week” — a show The Baltimore Sun described as “exploring the stock market with equal measures of irreverence and lucidity.”
According to colleagues at MPT, he was known as “Dr. B.” He also led the creation of other programs, including “Consumer Survival Kit,” “MotorWeek,” “Hodgepodge Lodge,” “The Critic’s Place” and “Maryland Weekend.”
“He has been responsible for the organization’s growth into one of the more successful public TV operations in the country,” said The Sun in a 1983 story.
When he left Maryland to become president of WHYY in Philadelphia, he said, “I set out to build something, and for all practical purposes, it’s built.” He retired from WHYY in 1997.
He returned annually to the Owings Mills studios to preside over an event honoring the service anniversaries of MPT employees.
George Beneman, MPT’s senior vice president, described Dr. Breitenfeld as an accomplished speaker who rarely used notes.
“He knew everybody. ...[He] was an outgoing person who was interested in his staff,” said Mr. Beneman. “He created a collegial atmosphere and in those early days, he would say, ‘Go try this. Be creative.’”
“He was a performer at heart. He loved to entertain,” said his daughter,.Ann Langtry, who lives in Lower Makefield, Pa. “He could command a room with a tip of his hat.”
He was a member of the American Federation of Musicians, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild. His daughter said her father retained his love of acting and had played roles in government and industrial training films.
In the 1970s he had a role in the NBC television series, “Movin’ On,” and after interviewing filmmaker John Waters for the MPT show “In Person,” he accepted an offer to appear in Waters’ 1981 film, “Polyester,” creating the role of Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw.
He also had appearances in HBO’s “The Wire” and “Hack” on CBS. He appeared in Bucks County theatrical productions.
Dr. Breitenfeld was a founding co-chair of the National University Consortium for Telecommunications in Teaching, and chairman of the board of trustees of the Eastern Educational Network, a group of Northeast public television stations.
He was also founding chairman of the American Program Service — now American Public Television — which provides programming to public television stations.
He had been a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University and taught both undergraduate and graduate students as an adjunct faculty member at Catholic University of America, American University, Loyola University Maryland and Towson University. He also gave lectures at the FBI Academy and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
He published articles in the Saturday Evening Post, TV Guide, American School Board Journal and the Columbia Journalism Review.
He was awarded honorary doctorates at the University of Maryland, Salisbury State College, Wesley College and the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.
Services are private. A life celebration is being planned.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, Kathleen, who resides in New York City; and two grandchildren. His wife of 44 years, Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, died in 1998. His partner, Nedra Clay Sanderson, died in 2017.