Matt Tully died Monday night.
The Indianapolis Star columnist lost a hard battle with stomach cancer. His passing prompted an outpouring of tributes regarding his work and his contributions to this community, all of them deserved.
My acquaintance with Matt wasn’t as deep or as profound as that of some of his colleagues at the Star, but we did know each other.
He taught for a time at the college journalism program where I serve as director. We co-chaired a college feature writing competition for several years. And, more than a few times, we found ourselves paired as speakers at symposia and other gatherings.
We had some things in common. We both were Elvis fans and we both were devoted to baseball teams with long legacies of futility – in his case, the Chicago Cubs, and, in mine, the Cleveland Indians. His seasons of despair came to an end sooner than mine have. Two years ago, his beloved Cubbies beat my Tribe in one of the greatest World Series of all time.
But that wasn’t what connected us.
What tied us was that we belonged to the same small, somewhat strange and slightly lonely club.
We both were columnists.
Some years ago, when Matt was pondering his future, we went to dinner. He wanted to talk about how a person makes a transition from newspaper work to something else. He wanted to know whether other work could be as satisfying.
“I’ve got a great job,” he said. “There are, what, maybe a hundred of these jobs in the country. But….”
“You know what it’s like,” he said.
I did – and do – know.
Being a columnist is an odd gig.
Columnists are both part of and apart from the newsrooms in which they work. Their challenge is different from that of most journalists. For reporters, the trick is to get out of the way of the story and let the facts speak for themselves. But, for a columnist, the voice matters, because the goal is to stimulate a conversation with readers that will continue, two or three times a week, month after month, year after year.
That can be daunting. No matter how good or great any given column might be, once it’s written, it’s done – and the next deadline is looming, with that long stretch of white space waiting to be filled with more words, another story, still more thoughts or insights. The work never ends because it can’t end, because the conversation isn’t supposed to stop.
Part of being a columnist involves telling uncomfortable truths, saying things some people and, occasionally, many people would prefer left unsaid. When that happens, those people get angry. They leave cutting comments for or send threatening notes.
There are only two kinds of people who will say they enjoy being the object of that much anger – masochists and liars.
Matt was neither.
He didn’t much like that part of the job.
He received a fair amount of abuse, in part because of his columnist’s voice. He radiated sincerity. What he wrote, readers knew he believed. They knew he cared.
He had a gift for tearing down the wall between the writer and his audience. His prose had a deceptive simplicity. It was always clear, unforced and conversational, as if he were sitting in the reader’s living room, a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand, talking about what mattered to him.
Making it clear that he cared also made Matt vulnerable to cranks and trolls who didn’t think of columnists as human beings, just names and pictures in print or on the screen.
The insults and sniping didn’t stop Matt from doing what he did, from writing about what he thought important.
That’s because he believed what all good columnists must.
That people’s stories matter.
That ideas matter.
That the truth matters.
Matt was only 49 when he died. Too young. Way too young.
I didn’t know him as well as some people did, but I’m going to miss him – in part because, like me, he loved Elvis and an underdog baseball team.
But mostly because we belonged to the same small, somewhat strange and slightly lonely club.
It’s a club that feels even lonelier now.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.