Richard K. Shull · 2005
By Marion Garmel
Richard K. Shull, who revolutionized writing about television for Indianapolis audiences, truly comes from pioneer Indiana stock. An early Shull ancestor traveled from Ohio to Fort Wayne to take part in the tearing down of the fort that was Fort Wayne. He later had a stagecoach stop about half-way between Fort Wayne and Angola, near Auburn. Shull, who was born in Fort Wayne on May 2, 1927, remembers spending summers on his grandfather’s farm while a great aunt remained in the half-way house for stagecoaches.
Perhaps that is where he got his down-to-earth, slightly irreverent view of life and newspapers. In high school, he fell in love with the books of Richard Halliburton, who reported on incredible adventures that no one else witnessed for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, such as swimming the Hellespont in imitation of his idol, Lord Byron.
Shull still can cite chapter and verse on Halliburton’s exploits, including his last communiqué in 1939 when he went down on a Chinese junk that he was sailing to the San Francisco World’s Fair.
After a stint in the Navy in what he calls “the great War,” R.K., or Arky, as he was known to his friends, enrolled at Butler University to study journalism on the GI Bill. He remembers that he had enough money for two and a half years and that he needed to work to supplement his income. So he followed the advice of a high school counselor, who said that, although Indiana University had the best journalism school, Butler was in a major metropolitan area, where work would be more plentiful. “Better advice was never before given,” R.K. said.
In his freshman year, he lucked into a gofer job on the old Indianapolis Times, which was a Scripps Howard afternoon newspaper. When he no longer could afford college, he went full time at the Times, first on the police beat, then covering City Hall, then the courts, then as an investigative reporter and finally as assistant city editor where, according to R.K., “I pretty well proved that I was unfit to have anyone working over or under me.”
He began covering television when it was still in its infancy. Because the opposition newspaper saw television as competition and refused to cover it, the field was wide open. The legendary Irving Leibowitz, then managing editor of the Times, “thought we might make some hay. He saw it as a place for me and I loved it,” R.K. said.
R.K. always said the best job for a television columnist was on an afternoon paper, where a reader would come home from work, open the paper, and find out the best that was on TV that night. “There were three networks and everybody who was watching was watching them. I was writing about a shared experience with most of the people who were reading it,” he said.
From the beginning, his column went out to other papers, first on the Scripps Howard wire and later in syndication. Even more popular was Shull’s Mailbag, in which he answered questions from readers. R.K. became so well known as an expert on almost everything that people would call him at the office to settle bar bets and family disputes. At its peak, his column ran in about 100 papers and the Mailbag in 260.
In 1965, when the Times folded, R.K. went to New York City to replace Harriet Van Horne on the New York World Telegram and Sun, also a Scripps Howard paper. But the deal never came off due to difficulties coming to an agreement on salary, the fact that his wife refused to move to New York and that Van Horne’s husband suddenly died and she wanted her job back. All the time he was in New York, R.K. was courted by Wendell Phillippi, managing editor of the Indianapolis News, who kept upping the ante until R.K. could not refuse. He began his first column in the News in 1965 with, “As I was saying…..”
“So the story goes” another favorite R.K. phrase, marked his way of launching into a tale of intrigue and dirty tricks in politics, the corporate world or network television. He called the three networks Tic, Tac and Toe, and skewered every sacred cow that crossed his path. “I remember him best for his wit,” said Larry (Bo) Connor, longtime city editor of the rival Indianapolis Star. “When he would pan a show, he had a way of doing it gently but right on target. He had a cleverness and wit about him, and a slick way of writing.”
A consummate journalist, for many years at the News R.K. also worked rewrite back in the office for reporters covering the 500 Mile Race. “He did it quickly and well. We had a jump handling the 500 Mile Race, and we had the story 15 to 20 minutes after the race was over, because he did it so well,” said Wendell Trogdon, former city editor of the News.
R.K. retired from the News in 1991 because his eyesight was going, and the business had changed. He did not stop writing, however, continuing with an occasional political column for another three years. The Mailbag remained in print (and syndication) until just this year. And he recently wrote a paper for the Indianapolis Literary Club on Asa Smith, “a lawyer, ornery ex-Marine and the guy who single-handedly put D.C. Stephenson away and broke the back of the Klan. I knew him and a lot of anecdotes about him,” R.K. said.
R.K. married twice. His first wife Avriel was an architectural designer and contractor who built some of the finest houses in Indianapolis. She died in 1976. He has two daughters and two granddaughters. His second wife, Dottie, has four grown children and two grandsons.
He still watches TV but doesn’t see a lot of it. “The (bleep) forensic shows are so predictable you don’t have to watch them,” he said. But he and his wife are big fans of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which has “the best news around,” R.K. said.
So the story goes, R.K. never liked long stories. As long as it was possible, his columns were written to a predetermined length, 18 inches. He said anything over 800 words was more than you wanted to know about any subject. What he didn’t say was that it always left readers wanting more.