Bill Oesterle: Matt Tully was great reporter, even better Hoosier

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OesterleOn Oct. 29, Indiana lost one of its very best. Longtime journalist Matt Tully died from stomach cancer at age 49. Matt was born and raised in Gary, and his love of this state was marrow deep.

He began his career as a beat reporter for the Post-Tribune in Gary. This was not a glamorous job, covering police runs in a declining city. But the work fascinated him. He loved Gary, and amid all the bad news, he found the best in the place and its people.

I remember a story he told me about Gary. He picked up a rumor that there was a bear in a Gary bar. It was a slow night, so Matt decided to follow up. Never mind that the bar was in a very tough part of town, Matt was working a lead. Sure enough, out behind the bar, Matt found a black bear in a cage.

Matt found the guys in the bar that “owned” the bear. They had recently trapped it someplace and with great excitement taken it to their neighborhood bar with the plan to eat it. Matt had found them in the midst of their complicated meal-preparation plans. Matt was never a very imposing figure, but in those days, I’m guessing he was just plain scrawny. But with red hair, spectacles and notepad, he gathered all the critical details. I wish I could have seen it.

He had done his job. He could have left and filed a really good story, but he did something else. Matt confessed to me that this was the only time in his reporting career that he intervened in a story. Matt was an extremely disciplined reporter. He respected the rules of the profession. In this one-time breech, he suggested to the guys that maybe they shouldn’t eat the bear, maybe they should let it go. Matt even called a conservation officer to help them out. Matt and the guys had a good story, and the bear had its freedom.

Matt was happy with the outcome, but I always sensed some regret for getting involved. I respect him for every part of that story. We were supposed to go to Gary sometime to visit that bar, but we never did.

I wasn’t there for the bear story, but I was there in 2004 when Matt was covering the Mitch Daniels campaign for The Indianapolis Star. I was managing the campaign. I didn’t know him well then, and he kept an overtly professional distance. Late in the campaign, the opposition began to aggressively peddle a false story about Mitch. They loaded the story with innuendo, sold it hard and finally lured a WTHR reporter to bite.

Unbeknownst to all of us, Matt had already investigated the story. Matt had done more work than anyone. He alone had tracked down the one guy on the planet who could definitely exonerate Mitch. No one had seen that guy in 30 years. Matt, correctly, didn’t write the story.

However, when WTHR ran promos of the false story, Matt and his editors decided they needed to write. The Star published the true story before WTHR and buried it on the back page to get it on the record without giving it a headline. Matt did what great journalists do; he got the truth out.

After the campaign, he became a good friend and an even better father. Most of all, Matt was a Hoosier, one of the best I have ever known.•

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Oesterle is the CEO at Tmap LLC. He managed Republican Mitch Daniels’ first run for governor. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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