Gene's Blog: Guts, glory intersect in Storm Lake

Gene's Blog: Guts, glory intersect in Storm Lake

PHOTO: St. Thomas alum Art Cullen (center), with his son Tom and older brother John. Storm Lake Times photo

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Last Friday's blog on D-III Week (Visibility, credibility surge in Division III) already needs an update.

We discovered another authentic Division III alum, this one with a Purple connection, doing noble work in the trenches of his field.

In case we need a sports hook to run this story on Tommiesports.com, think of a wise coach who turns down high-profile opportunities to work with small-town athletes simply because he or she loves the craft. Now you can understand the subject of today's blog.

On Monday, after sifting through dozens of heavyweight newspaper entries from its headquarters in New York City, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced its 101st annual awards for excellence in journalism.

Nine individuals and five newspaper teams were recognized for exceptional reporting, writing, commentary, editorial, cartooning and photography.

The nation's biggest and best newspapers were again represented. Among the solo winners, one graduated from Harvard, another from Cornell. Two other honorees also boast Ivy League credentials, having taught writing at Yale.

Other solo honorees were educated at Syracuse, Loyola of New Orleans, and Central Michigan.

And then there's the 2017 award recipient for editorial writing, representing his twice weekly newspaper with a distribution list of 3,000.

You read that right: This year's Pulitzer for editorial writing was presented to the principled and fiercely independent Art Cullen, a proud Class of '79er from the College of St. Thomas.

(When you're as old school as Art Cullen, you'll always think of your old school by its old name.)

Full disclosure: Art and I worked together 30 years ago in the same small daily newspaper in Ames, Iowa, so this blog comes with reporter bias. I recall Art's sense of purpose along with his sense of humor. He wasn't necessarily the smartest guy in the room, but he was often the boldest, and easily the most authentic. This newsroom leader, who drove a 20-year-old Chevy Impala, always seemed more at ease with the blue-collar crew that ran the printing presses than the suits who officed on the second floor.

Art's instincts make him wary of most corporations, especially the Hues Corporation of 1970s pop music fame. The Hues anthem -- "Don't rock the boat, baby, don't tip the boat over" -- doesn't mesh with Art. As the folks at the Pulitzer explained to America, Art Cullen is very much a boat rocker, not afraid to make waves.

 

Awards Criteria

The Pulitzer judges declared that Cullen's editorials were "fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

Which is a fancy way of saying that in doing his job over the last 27 years, Art hasn't made a lot of money, probably made as many enemies as friends, but never is intimidated while holding local government and business interests accountable.

Cullen made St. Thomas proud on Monday, but he makes community journalism proud 104 days a year, first by showing up and fighting the fight.

At his cluttered desk at the Storm Lake Times, Cullen guides a small staff that includes his older brother, John, the publisher; his wife, Dolores, a photographer; his son Tom, a reporter; and a dog known as Mabel the news hound. At age 33, he left a small daily newspaper in Mason City to start up a publication with his brother in a town of 11,000 residents -- a town that already had another newspaper. From a pure business perspective, this was like someone in 2017 starting up a VHS rental store.

This artist formerly known in St. Paul as Gerald "Jerry" Cullen wrote for the Aquin student newspaper during his St. Thomas years. Cullen appeared to be a late bloomer as a writer. As a senior he was the 1979 co-winner on campus of a Dean's Prize for Creative Literature, in the Journalism category.

Like many of his peers, Cullen was attracted to study journalism in the mid-1970s in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which produced a new appreciation for watchdog reporting.

Unlike many of those peers, however, Cullen didn't immediately dream of a metropolitan byline or a big-city salary. He left St. Thomas and took a job as editor of a weekly newspaper in Algona, Iowa.

 

The Real World

While still in his 20s in Algona, Cullen won a national award for business reporting -- the Champion Tuck -- for his account of how the 1980s farm crisis affected one community. The Tuck prize meant $10,000 and a trip to New York, and for most winners, a ticket to the fast lane of the profession.

Cullen instead moved on to a bigger university town and the editor job at the Ames Tribune, where we first met. I was a Tribune sportswriter and editor during a six-year stretch in the 1980s. The Trib was too often a safe and sleepy news outlet, so Art took risks and injected caffeine to the news hole. In one of his first stories, he interviewed a homeless man living under a bridge and put the account and photos on page one. Art rocked the boat and often ticked off various business, city and university leaders with his editorials and ideas, but he helped that newspaper find a voice.

A funny memory from late 1987 and early 1988: We watched the parade of Iowa Caucus presidential candidates who came to the Tribune and sat in Art's glass-window office in the corner of the newsroom for some free publicity. About 15 minutes into each sit down, one of us would call Art's phone to ask if his B.S. meter was set off yet by candidate X, Y or Z's stump speech. That one never got old.

Art eventually took a U-turn in his career, moving to a daily in Mason City and then settling back on familiar turf in his hometown. Some people claim that there was micromanagement to blame, but Ames' loss was Storm Lake's gain, and Art regained his comfort level.

 

Vindication

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post wrote on Monday about the Pulitzer's most unlikely winner. Wemple offered a quick summary of Cullen's world:

None of which is to say that the Storm Lake Times doesn't know what people want to read. "We strive to have a baby, a dog, a fire and a crash on every front page, so, yes, we do pander," says Art Cullen.

Cullen pulls down a salary of about $35,000 a year, though his Pulitzer will pad this year's take-away. "They give you 15-grand. That's worth it," says Cullen, who doesn't bother with all the lesser state- and local level contests. "I don't need a wooden plaque or a piece of paper."

Perhaps the sweetest part of the Pulitzer, says Art Cullen, is the vindication it brings. "We took a lot of heat," he says, referring to attacks from people in Iowa that the Storm Lake Times and the Cullen family are "anti-farmer." Not so, he says: "My wife grew up on a farm. I got sh−− on my boots. I ain't anti-farmer, but I'm anti-pollution."

Cullen told a reporter on Monday, "Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all around the country."

At St. Thomas, the spirit of Father Whalen is beaming at this week's Pulitzer news. D-III students and alums can take heart in Art's vision of the American dream: If you work hard and catch a break, maybe someday you'll get to work in a small community alongside your wife, son and your brother, with a sense of purpose and a sense of humor, and get to drive an old Chevy. There is a thin paycheck, but the trade off is that the job produces a thick skin.

And best of all, as an old-school journalist in an age of fake news and deflection, you get to buy your ink by the barrel.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu