Andrea Neal · 2019
Imagine a curvy road originating in Indiana that led to the U.S. Supreme Court as well as to a steamboat museum on the banks of the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, to a historic Bloomington neighborhood called “Vinegar Hill” and to the Indiana Statehouse.
Andrea Neal’s award-winning journalism career has included stops in all of those places. Known for approaching every task with penetrating insights and vast reserves of energy, she has been a versatile and consummate journalist and a master multi-tasker, excelling at jobs ranging from reporter and syndicated columnist to state editor and assistant city editor. In 2000, she became the first woman editor of the opinion pages at The Indianapolis Star.
“She quickly introduced new writers and features that elevated the opinion pages to a must-read,” noted Tim Swarens, a former columnist for The Indianapolis Star who succeeded her as opinion pages editor. “Andrea opened the community conversation to new voices and new communities, promoted a diversity of opinions and championed citizen participation in the democratic process.”
Neal also has written books, including the first full-length biography of Vice President Mike Pence – “Pence: The Path to Power” (Indiana University Press, 2018) – and “Road Trip: A Pocket History of Indiana” (Indiana Historical Society, 2016), an anthology about diverse sites. She used the “back stories” of the destinations (such as the steamboat museum and the distinctive Bloomington neighborhood of limestone houses) to describe how the state’s colorful history unfolded.
Neal wrote the books while teaching English and U.S. history at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis, where she has been on the faculty since leaving The Indianapolis Star in 2003.
Her distinguished journalism career and extensive civic engagement – which includes serving as the board chair of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site – is a family tradition. Born in 1958, she is the daughter of James Neal, a long-time editor and publisher of the Noblesville Daily Ledger and a writer whose column appeared six days each week. (In 1990, James Neal was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. He died in 2016.) Neal’s mother, Georgianne D. Neal, was a reporter for the Indianapolis News during the 1950s.
When Andrea Neal was 7 years old, her father made national headlines when he was arrested for contempt of court for writing a column critical of a Hamilton County judge.
“My father told me, ‘If you’re worried about popularity, don’t be a journalist,’” Andrea Neal recalls. “I couldn’t wait to get started. Even as I was growing up, I covered Little League and got jobs as a proofreader.”
Several decades after James Neal stood up to the local judge, his daughter interacted with significantly more powerful judicial figures: justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. After graduating from Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis and Brown University, she began working in 1981 for United Press International, spending four years as a reporter at the Indiana Statehouse, followed by four years based in Washington, D.C., to cover the U.S. Supreme Court, an assignment she called both “heady and intimidating.”
Neal covered the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. She also met with all nine sitting justices, an experience she regarded as “one of the highlights of my professional life.”
In 1989, Neal returned to Indianapolis to raise her two sons, Andrew and Scott Schmelzer, and to begin her 14-year stint at the Star, where her work won numerous statewide journalism awards and national recognition. The acclaim came for projects that included an investigative series in 1993, “Youth Gone Wild,” about a troubled juvenile justice system often shielded from accountability by confidentiality laws.
“Every aspect of the system was overwhelmed and couldn’t come close to accommodating the demand,” Neal recalled.
In 1994, she wrote an investigative report about botched autopsies that resulted in structural reform of the Marion County Coroner’s office.
For “Reading Wars,” an editorial series she wrote in 1999 about how children learn to read, Neal was awarded first place for opinion writing by the National Education Writers Association. Summarizing her extensive research for the series, she said, “I talked to experts all over the country, I watched tutors at work, and I immersed myself in the ways reading is taught.”
As editor of the opinion pages, Neal oversaw the work of cartoonist Gary Varvel, who was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 2015. He credits her with instantly seeing the fundraising potential in a cartoon he created following the 2001 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. (Varvel’s award-winning cartoon depicted a grief-stricken Uncle Sam holding a fallen firefighter in front of the ruins of the twin towers.) After Neal initiated the printing of posters of the image, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for the relief effort in New York.
“She was not only a great journalist, she was a visionary who thought outside of the box,” Varvel recalled. “Her encouragement and advice made me a better cartoonist.”
Since becoming a full-time educator in 2003, Neal was named the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year by the Indiana Historical Society. In addition to being an educator, she has also continued to write a periodic, syndicated column for the Indiana Policy Review. Her columns about historic sites – ranging from the obscure or forgotten to well-known landmarks – generated excitement in the buildup to Indiana’s Bicentennial in 2016. The eventual result was “Road Trip,” her first book.
For the Pence biography, Neal described her approach this way: “I used only named sources, people who would speak for attribution.” Working against tight deadlines so her biography would be published prior to at least two others that were underway, Neal moonlighted on the book project while also holding down her demanding job as a teacher.
“As an author, as a journalist and as an educator, Andrea Neal exemplifies excellence,” Swarens wrote in nominating her for the Hall of Fame. “She consistently met the highest journalistic standards and inspired her staff to do the same.”
By Nelson Price