The Lake Effect: Lessons Learned from a Life Well Written

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The following was written by Fairfield University senior Nicole Funaro for my Sports Journalism course. The assignment called on them to interview a nationally-recognized sports writer. Nicole talked with Thomas Lake. — Matt

By Nicole Funaro

Thomas-Lake1-171x300It only took two rings before I was greeted with a cautious “hello.” His voice sounded like he had been debating whether or not to pick up, and understandably so, considering an unknown Connecticut number lit up the screen of the Atlanta-based writer’s phone. But once I nervously, yet proudly asserted that I was one of Matt’s students, his voice smoothed and softened. Our introduction and opening pleasantries gave way to my first question, and then I, the novice, was tasked with interviewing the seasoned professional. And this “seasoned professional” wasn’t just anyone; it was CNN Digital’s senior writer, Thomas Lake.

While Lake now sits atop CNN’s digital news outlet, he never dreamed of holding such a title — that is, he never dreamed of it because he never set out to pursue journalism in the first place. As a student at Herkimer Community College in upstate New York, Lake was a general studies major with little idea of what career he’d pursue, something that followed him even as he began Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts a few years later. However, inspiration finally came when he took a feature writing class with a professor named Steve Crowe.

“I’d always enjoyed writing, and taking this class sort of showed me what the possibilities were,” he said. “That someone could spend their career and actually get paid telling exciting stories — it sounded very appealing to me.”

That wasn’t the only thing Lake got out of Crowe’s class: Crowe helped him land an internship in the fall of his senior year at the Salem News, a paper for which Crowe previously worked. Following his senior year, a young Lake bounced from working at a twice-weekly newspaper in rural Georgia — a paper where he said he “got to make some of [his] worst rookie mistakes on a very small stage” — to serving as a full-time staffer at the Salem Times, to finally landing what he thought was his dream job with the St. Petersburg Times.

But by 2008, Lake was already eyeing his next move and decided to send an email to one of his favorite writers, Gary Smith.

“Amazingly,” Lake said, “he wrote back. I sent him a story I had done at the St. Petersburg Times, and he liked it well enough that he got on the phone to the big boss, the editor of Sports Illustrated in New York, and said, ‘Hey, you should give this kid a chance.’”

And the rest, as they say, is history. He stayed with the magazine until 2015 when his position was eliminated due to budget cuts, then taking his knack for storytelling to CNN as an “outsider” looking in on the complex world of politics. With a book about the 2016 presidential election (“Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything”) under his belt, a circuitous career to look back on and more still to come, Lake said the topics he writes about are of little importance; in fact, he doesn’t much care for sports or politics. Instead, he looks for universal themes to transform into rich stories.

“I love finding moments of human drama and split-second decisions people make that have long-term consequences,” he explained, something he certainly achieved in his most famous work, “2 on 5.”

A time-hopping wonder that simultaneously foreshadows and reflects, Lake’s omniscient approach to telling the story of an underdog Alabama basketball team in “2 on 5” shelves the traditional Cinderella story and talks fate, hardship, redemption and demise. For Lake, weaving the intricate tale required some contemplation of his own.

“I think a huge part of the best writing is thinking — stopping and thinking,” he said. “There was so much that I did on that story in particular, just sitting there in silence with no distractions, nothing fragmenting my attention at all and sitting alone in a cheap hotel room.”

It seems that minimizing distraction has been Lake’s MO all along; once he decided to pursue journalism, he’s never once broken his focus, always keeping his eyes fixed on his next move. Even when considering budding journalists, Lake offered more of the same.

“Report and write as much as you can,” he said. “Keep a journal or some other kind of notebook. Sit on the quad and just write descriptions of what you’re seeing — your sensory experiences — because all that just flexes those muscles. Ultimately, you’re only as good as your ability to put experiences into words, and so you’ve got to be practicing that and then reading the best writing.”

I hung up the phone and sat in amazement. “I just spoke to a writer for CNN, a place that maybe I’ll work some day,” I thought. After all, that’s why I wanted to interview him in the first place: to make a connection at an organization where maybe I too could catch one of the lucky breaks that seemed to mark Lake’s own career.

As I reflected on our conversation, a wave of mixed emotions consumed me. I was at once hungry for the experiences he’s had, envious of his writing abilities and hopeful. Hopeful that if I keep writing just like he advised, maybe I could carve out a similar place for myself in journalism. I ran through the rest of the day hearing two rings of the phone and three words echoing in my head: just keep writing.



Lawsuit against Ashland University will define value of tenure

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Ashland University recently announced that it granted tenure to three faculty members.

I worked with two of the faculty who received tenure prior to leaving for Fairfield University in Connecticut last year. While I am incredibly happy that the hard work these faculty have done has been recognized, I worry that the reward of tenure is meaningless at AU.

In August 2015, several tenured faculty — the university has never actually said how many — were told their jobs were being eliminated. As of January 2017, they are no longer employed by AU. This move on the administration’s part is the primary reason I left AU. I no longer felt the tenure I was granted in 2014 meant anything.

Fortunately, seven faculty members whose jobs were eliminated have filed a lawsuit against the university claiming administrators violated the rules and regulations that govern the university when it comes to this type of act. (You can read the entire complaint by clicking here.)

This is an incredibly important lawsuit, not just for Ashland University, but for universities in general. It boils down to what the definition of the word restructure is, and it has the potential to destroy tenure, the staple of academic freedom that has made American universities the great institutions they are.

The university’s rules and regulations contain wording that allows the administration to eliminate tenured faculty members. The first reason is because the university is on the verge of financial collapse. Here, the Board of Trustees would have to declare something called “financial exigency.” Once a board declares that, it’s open season on tenured faculty, all in the effort to save the university.

It’s no secret that AU has not done well when it comes to managing money over the last decade. However, the trustees have not declared financial exigency.

Other than dire financial straits, according to the rules and regulations, the university can remove tenured faculty members because of the “formal discontinuance of a program or department,” or the “formal restructuring of a program or department of instruction.”

The seven faculty members claim, according to their lawsuit, that the university has not restructured anything. No departments have been eliminated. Curriculum has remained virtually the same. The classes these faculty taught are still being offered to students, albeit taught by significantly lower-paid, part-time faculty.

The university, on the other hand, has claimed that a prioritization process conducted in 2014-15 identified departments that could possibly be restructured, and that was in essence a restructuring. I know this because I heard it many times when faculty questioned the administration about the firings before I left AU.

Basically, AU is arguing that simply saying the university should restructure is an act of restructuring.

Why is this important?

If the university prevails in this lawsuit, then tenure is dead at Ashland University. It would mean that any time the university felt the need to get rid of a faculty member, for any reason at all, they could simply say “We’re restructuring. You’re fired.”

This is chilling. In higher education, faculty need to be able to question the moves administrators make, and vice versa. Universities depend on shared governance, where the faculty and the administration make decisions together for the betterment of the institution.

Why do I care about this? I’m an alumnus, and I care about AU. This is something all alumni should care about, because if the administration prevails, AU will no longer be able to attract the type of faculty who made us who we are today.

It won’t be the AU that we know and love. It probably already isn’t.


Matt Tullis, ‘98

Sandy Hook, CT


The Bridge

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The actual pedestrian bridge.

There’s an enclosed pedestrian bridge that spans Locust Street in Akron. It connects a parking garage and medical building to the third floor entrance of Akron Children’s Hospital. I crossed that bridge on January 4, 1991. I was scared, tired, still not sure of what was going on. I didn’t know why I was in Akron, other than the fact that I had been exhausted for the last couple weeks, that I had a severe pain in my back, and that doctors in Wooster had said something about leukemia. But I didn’t know what that was or what it meant. I didn’t know how long I would be there. I didn’t know what I would face in the coming days, months and years. I couldn’t comprehend all of the ways in which, in crossing that bridge, my life would change. I couldn’t comprehend that I would never be the same, or, that it would take me nearly a quarter-century to realize that my life was never the same, and any attempts to get back to the Matt I was before I crossed the bridge were futile.

I think about how that bridge can never be uncrossed. Indeed, trying to uncross it, trying to understand and unpack everything that crossing it that first time meant, has caused me to cross that bridge — both figuratively and literally — hundreds of more times. Because when I go to Akron Children’s Hospital to visit with my old nurses or to look at my medical records or to participate in an event the hospital is having, I always park in that same old parking garage and enter the same way, despite the fact the hospital has built a new parking garage and created a new, much nicer, main entrance. I can’t park anywhere else, because I feel I have to always enter the hospital the exact same way from which I initially came.


The view, toward my old room and the Ronald McDonald House.

I walk across that bridge and I look out to the left and see the Ronald McDonald House. I see the space where Room 462 used to look out on the intersection of Locust and State. In my mind’s eye, I can see it exactly as I saw it when I crossed over the first time. And when I look forward, I see the same teal and pink carpet leading straight ahead to a welcome desk that is still staffed by elderly volunteers, and I see those orange elevators behind the volunteers, elevators that sometime around 9:30 a.m. on January 4, 1991, took me up as I sat in a wheelchair to the fourth floor. I still take those same elevators because I don’t know any other way, nor do I want to. When I am in that space, on that bridge, walking past that desk, standing in the elevator, my heart races and everything comes back in clear bursts. And instead of making me scared or confused, I feel calm, like that is the place I am meant to be.


Queen of the Zoo

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I wrote this story in December 2006 for the Columbus Dispatch as Colo, the world’s first captive-born gorilla, was about to turn 50 years old. Even then, she was the oldest-known gorilla in the world. Hard to believe she has just turned 60 years old.

One of the things I loved most about doing this story was watching Tom Dodge make the amazing portrait of Colo that ran as dominant art on Page 1.


By Matt Tullis
Columbus Dispatch

images-coloIt’s early in the morning and Colo sits in her normal spot, the center of Cage 1. She is wedged between two concrete trees. A milk crate is on her right, and a rope dangles in front of her.

Her head is tilted back, her chin juts into the air, her eyes are half-closed and looking down.

A chute opens at the top of her exhibit area, and the world’s first captive-born gorilla stirs from her reverie at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She grabs the rope with her curled, arthritic fingers and pulls herself up. She slowly makes her way up the tree, climbing toward breakfast: a banana, grapefruit, apple, sweet potato, cucumber and turnip, as well as iceberg lettuce, carrots and broccoli.

She would have taken these fake trees in bounds when she was younger, but they are steep and slippery and youth is fleeting, even for gorillas.

The world outside the glass

On Friday, Colo turns 50, the equivalent of 100 human years. No one knows how long she will live, though, because Colo is the mold from which captive-born gorillas are made.

Docents Sara Jane Rowland and Sharon Kruyer walk into the public viewing aisle in the gorilla house and look into Cage 1.

“Hi, Queen Bee,” Rowland says.

“Good morning, Queen,” Kruyer says.

The two women have just finished chopping vegetables for the gorillas’ two daily meals. Their attention moves from Colo to Cage 2, where Mumbah, a 41-year-old silverback, watches his group play with 2-year-old Dotty, Colo’s great-granddaughter.

Colo watches this, too. Dotty tags Cassie, Colo’s 13-year-old granddaughter, and runs across the hay-covered, concrete floor. Cassie gives chase, grabs Dotty and rolls. Dotty jumps and spins before clapping her hands against the glass. Little boys and girls, at the zoo with their mothers, giggle and point.

It’s enough now for Colo to just watch the ruckus. She doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. She gave birth to three children and, though they were taken from her at birth, she served as a surrogate mother for three of her grandchildren, including the twins, Mosuba and Macombo II (Mac), born in 1983.

Her line, including four great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, is scattered among zoos across the country. It’s strongest here in Columbus, where Mac, Cassie, Jumoke, Nkosi (Nick) and Dotty make up one-third of the zoo’s gorilla collection.

Mac and Nick aren’t on display but, from her spot, Colo can watch her granddaughters and great-granddaughter play all day long.

The world outside the mesh

Debby Ames stands at the mesh, the back part of the gorilla cages, and calls for Colo. The Queen glances over but doesn’t move.

“Colo. Can you come over here for me? I’ve got some sweet potato for you.”

Ames looks away from the cage.

“Now you see the attitude,” she says.

Ames has been training Colo for four years. She works with Colo at the mesh, getting her to place her hands in different spots, pushing her shoulder up to the mesh to receive injections and moving her chest close to accommodate a stethoscope.

Colo doesn’t always cooperate.

“She’s my toughest because she doesn’t think she should have to work for anything,” Ames says.

Each keeper has a relationship with Colo, as well as a favorite story. For Ames, it’s the time Colo took a toothbrush out of her hand and started brushing her own teeth.

Dan Nellis started at the zoo in 1992 and was the first male keeper to work with Colo since 1979. She spit on him for two years, he says.

“Then she figured out I wasn’t going to leave and she started hitting on me,” he said. “They tell you not to get attached, but you can’t help it.”

Mike Zedekar likes the story of Colo and the hat. A few years back, she wore a ball cap. Zedekar always wears a cap at work and, one day, when he was cleaning outside her cage, he turned it backward. Colo did the same. He turned it sideways, and she copied him once more. Now that she doesn’t have a hat of her own, she tries to take his whenever he walks by.

All the keepers tell the one about the toy keys. A few years ago, a child dropped a ring of plastic keys into the outdoor gorilla exhibit. Colo pounced on them. She knew the keepers would barter for them.

Colo held out for cookies, but instead of turning over the entire key ring for one cookie, she broke the keys into tiny pieces and traded each one for a treat. As usual, she got her way.

As Colo’s training winds down, Ames sprinkles her with affirmation: “Good girl” and “very good.” Colo has allowed Ames to brush her teeth. She has done her best to place her ear, shoulder, back and chest against the mesh — all for cranberry juice and slivers of sweet potato.

When the food is gone, she walks slowly back to her spot, lowers herself to the floor and resumes her stately pose.

The world in between

Colo has been at the zoo longer than any other creature. Because of that, she gets her wish: to be left alone. She moves infrequently, to the mesh for food or drink or to the window to get a visitor’s attention. She scratches her armpits and nose. She plays with a milk crate. She swings the rope back and forth.

But most often, she just sits, her head held high, in that one spot where everyone can see her and she can see everyone. It’s the world between the glass and the mesh, a world into which she became the first gorilla ever born. When she was born they called her Cuddles, but only for a short time.

Now there is nothing cuddly about her. She is stubborn, stuck in her ways, a gorilla through and through.

Her distinctive heart-shape brow is a crown, raised high on her head as she watches her people come and go.

She is the Queen.

A couple pieces on school inequality worth checking out

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This piece was written Yohuru Williams, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University (my new dean, by the way, something I couldn’t be happier about, both in my joining Fairfield and having him as a dean) on school inequality, why charter schools are not the answer and outlining why those salivating over charter schools are misappropriating the Civil Rights Movement. There’s one thought that really stands out in a piece that makes incredibly strong arguments:

“This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.”

This rings especially true after I listened to the most recent episode of This American Life, which was about how Missouri accidentally desegregated schools. The accident happened when the state pulled accreditation from the Normandy School District. That district borders Ferguson, Missouri, and is the district that Michael Brown graduated from. The accidental desegregation resulted in higher test scores for students who ended up in better schools, but the state quickly took care of that “accident,” so the inner city kids ended up back at the schools that were failing them originally.




Reaction at the fairgrounds: ‘I think we’re at war’

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From The Daily Record in Wooster, Ohio. This is the first story I wrote on Sept. 11, 2001. It ran in a special edition that the newspaper put out the same day as the attacks. I was at the Wayne County Fair working the subscription tent when what was happening finally started to dawn on everyone there. I ended up using the back of subscription forms to take notes.

img_7215By Matt Tullis
Staff Writer

WOOSTER — People gathered around the WQKT 104.5 FM radio booth Tuesday morning, straining to listen to the live feed from CNN radio that was carrying the latest news on the apparent terrorist attack in the eastern United States earlier that morning.

Outside the fairgrounds entrance, flags flew at half-mast. Inside the grandstand, the only noise was the bits and pieces of news that spewed from the half-dozen radios that were sitting in booths advertising everything from pianos to real estate.

As people gathered around the WQKT booth, “The Star-Spangled Banner” began outside, the start of what was still to be a day of harness racing.

Eyes welled up. Anger poured out.

“I think we’re at war,” said Art Clappe, an Akron resident who came to the fair. “If we ain’t at war, we’re damn close to it.”

Wayne County Fair Board member Herb Berry said there were no plans to cancel any fair activities as of Tuesday afternoon.

Mike Brekenridge, program manager at WQKT, said people were stopping by the booth as soon as the news broke. They would stay for 10 or 15 minutes before moving on, but ultimately they came back, unable to stay away from the horrific news updates, he said.

“It’s really disturbing,” Breckenridge said. “Nobody is smiling around here today, that’s for sure.”

Breckenridge said the radio station would carry continuous coverage well into the night.

“No other programming seems appropriate, at least not at this time,” he said. “This is far more important than anything else we could put on the air.”

While Breckenridge stood next to the booth, several people expressed absolute rage at what happened. One woman assumed Osama bin Laden, a Saudi terrorist and known enemy of the United States, was to blame for the attack.

“We should murder the son-of-a-bitch,” she said before walking away.

Murel Cameron of Canal Fulton said it was hard to express exactly what he was feeling.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” Cameron said. “Everybody is pretty much in shock. We get bits and pieces. Shock is the main word.”

John Weeman and his family vacationed in New York City last year. During the visit, they went to the World Trade Center.

It’s terrible,” he said. “The number of people that died.” Weeman paused. “We were in the Trade Center last year on vacation, and it could hold all of Wayne County.”

Linda Flory has 3-year-old and a 4-year-old daughters. While she takes solace in her faith, Flory said this is something that her children won’t be able to understand, at least not for now.

“I believe God is in control,” Flory said. “We don’t know the future, but we know who holds the future if you just put your trust in him.”

As she handed out tracts of Christian literature, labeled “The Beginning of the End,” Flory said she has noticed people are definitely not in a typical fair-going mood.

“People are all scared, dazed,” she said. “I just feel sick about it.”

Rolling Wheels Estates

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I was cleaning out the file cabinet in my office at Ashland University when I came upon a bunch of folders that contained a lot of my writing from grad school. This included three short stories and an essay that, when I read it, made me realize that its real life was only the first section, and only as a piece of fiction. Two of the four pieces of writing (the essay, specifically that first section of the essay) and one of the short stories were set in a trailer park. The short story was set in the real trailer park that my essay started out in.


That’s Rolling Wheels Estates, the trailer park I spent the most formative young years of my life, 1979 to 1985. It’s the place I had five birthdays, from five to ten. When I read that work, I thought, hey, that’s not as bad as I thought it was! Maybe I’ll post it on the blog!

I’ve had second thoughts about that, but the writing got me thinking more about that trailer park. One thing about nostalgia is that it doesn’t trigger until you haven’t visited it in a while, and, well, I still visit that trailer park on a regular basis because that’s where my in-laws live. That being said, I’ve never really taken the time to just walk around and let it soak in. I’ve walked around with the kids a couple times, showed them where I lived and where my brothers and I rode our bikes. But that’s about it.

The other day, though, I took Emery, my soon-to-be 12 year old son, to his grandparents so he could mow their yard. While he did that, I took a walk. I found that I just wanted to walk around and think about this place, especially in light of the fact I will soon be moving far away from it, again.

So much about the park hasn’t changed. There are trailers still in that park that were there thirty years ago. The sign out front is still the same. The small brick building that I have vague and foggy memories of sitting on the floor while Mom and Dad filled out the paperwork to buy the trailer that we were going to move into 107 Evergreen is still there, but it’s boarded up and not used anymore.


The old brick building back in the park that was a laundromat is still there too, but it’s also boarded up and graffitied. There used to be a basketball hoop back behind that laundromat, or at least I thought there was, but there isn’t anymore. I did find a post hole, though, hidden in the tall grass, where that hoop used to be.


The tan double-wide the park’s caretakers lived in is still there, right next to 107 Evergreen, where a different trailer sits.


But the woods that I used to stare into which was directly across the drive is still there, although it seems far smaller and not nearly as wide as I remember thinking it was as a kid. 


Finally, the pond and the rusted out chainlink fence, with barbed wire at the top, is still there too, as are the geese.


The short story I wrote that was set in the trailer park was called The Fence, and it was about a little boy who wanted nothing more than to get inside that rusted out fence. That was what I wanted when I was young. I hit so many baseballs and threw so many footballs and kicked so many kickballs into the pond that they often times gathered in one corner of pond, where the cattails grew thick, and after about a week, Harold, the caretaker, would walk out, unlock the padlock, open the gate and walk around collecting the things I had sent flying over the fence.

One thing there wasn’t in the pond was a bunch of balls. According to my mother-in-law, there aren’t any kids living in the park anymore. That, I think, is kind of sad, because that trailer park was pretty much the best place I could ever imagine growing up.