Matthew Tully · 2019

Matthew Tully

Matthew Tully was a man of deep passions. For his beloved Chicago Cubs. For Elvis. Most of all, for his wife, Val, and son, Reid.

And for journalism. Always for journalism.

Tully’s fascination with newspapers and with journalism began at age 3 as he sat on a sofa next to his Uncle Rob in his family’s home in Gary, Indiana.

“I remember curling up next to him on the couch and learning how to read by reading stories about the Chicago Cubs with him,” Tully wrote in his final column for The Indianapolis Star, published in June 2018. “About 45 years have passed, but I can tie my deep affections for reading, for newspaper journalism and for the Cubs to those moments.”

Born Sept. 12, 1969, Tully grew up in Gary and Portage. After graduation from Indiana University, he returned to Gary as a reporter with the Post Tribune, where he covered crime news and the Indiana General Assembly.

Then came an opportunity to cover the U.S. Senate as a reporter with Congressional Quarterly. Tully was on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He later recalled the rush of adrenaline he and other journalists felt in covering one of the biggest stories of their careers. He also recalled the shock and sorrow of knowing that so many people had died such a short distance from his office.

“I’m a Hoosier, to my core,” Tully once wrote, and when the opportunity came to return to Indiana – as a reporter with The Indianapolis Star – he eagerly accepted.

Tully covered Indianapolis city government and later politics for the Star. In 2004, he was the Star’s lead reporter in covering gubernatorial candidate Mitch
Daniels. Tully recalled, with a bit of fondness, a blistering phone call he received one Saturday morning from Daniels after the Star published a story, with Tully’s byline, about the candidate’s personal finances.

That coverage-under-fire experience was excellent training for Tully’s next assignment when, in 2005, he became the Star’s political columnist. It was a role that would define Tully’s career and cement his rank among the very best journalists Indiana has ever produced.

As a columnist, Tully wasn’t shy about thumping the state and nation’s most powerful leaders hard whenever necessary. He didn’t hold back, especially when he believed those leaders were hurting fellow Hoosiers who had much less power and influence.

But Tully also was recognized and respected for his consummate fairness, his meticulous attention to accuracy and a deep reservoir of humanity that emerged in his columns.

“Tully was fully committed to using the platform he’d been given as a columnist to help those in need,” Tim Swarens, Tully’s editor for 12 years, said. “He loved telling stories about people, especially children, who’d overcome enormous obstacles because he wanted to show that it not only could be done but also to inspire others never to give up on a child, despite whatever the odds appeared to be.”

In 2009, Tully began a series of columns at an urban high school that would transfix Indianapolis Star readers for months and inspire the creation of a communitywide campaign that continues to improve the lives of thousands of children in Central Indiana.

Called “The Manual Project,” Tully’s series of columns – most published on the Star’s front page – showed readers the daily struggles and occasional victories that students, teachers, coaches and administrators experienced at Indianapolis’ Manual High School during the 2009-10 school year.

One column in particular – in which Tully challenged the Star’s readers to attend a Christmas concert as a sign of support for students and staff – became a lasting reminder of the power of journalism.

Spencer Lloyd was the school’s young choir teacher. He and Tully got to know each other well during Tully’s daily visits to the school. Lloyd still fondly remembers the community’s response to Tully’s challenge.

“It’s a great life lesson for everybody,” Lloyd told the Star. “Matt had the idea — what if we invited all of Indianapolis to come to this Christmas concert? What if the community responds and you change lives?”

No one knew on the day of the concert whether readers would respond. Tully said that afternoon that he’d prepared himself for only a handful of people to show up.

But it was far more than a handful. More than 2,000 people packed into Manual’s auditorium and lobby. So many people came that a second show was quickly added to the bill that night.

All of the chairs in the massive auditorium were claimed, and one high-profile visitor – then-Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randy Shepard – took a seat on the floor along with dozens of other guests.

Tully’s work inspired Star readers to donate nearly $100,000 to assist students. It also inspired the Star’s editors to launch the Our Children Our City campaign, a 10-year commitment to helping improve lives of children in Central Indiana. In the past decade, the campaign has raised millions of dollars to support local charities that educate, mentor and feed at-risk kids.

“The whole experience I think truly changed the trajectory of some of my students’ lives,” Lloyd told the Star, “and Matt had a huge part in that.”

In 2010, Tully won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for his coverage of Manual. He also published a book – “Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America” – about what he saw and learned at the school.

“This wasn’t a column about education as much as it was a column about a community,” former Star editor Dennis Ryerson later told the newspaper. “Matt was always challenging people to do the right thing. He worked very hard, and he was a man of the highest ethics.’’

On Oct. 29, 2018, Indiana and the world of journalism lost Matt Tully at the age of 49 to stomach cancer. He leaves a proud legacy as a journalist and as a special voice who proudly and faithfully served the state he loved.

Indiana has lost Matt Tully. But his legacy of outstanding journalism remains.

By Tim Swarens


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