Matthew Tullis, 46, of Newtown, Connecticut, died on Friday, September 23, 2022, from complications following surgery. Loving. Caring. Smart. Funny. Giving. Unassuming. These are just a few words that could be used to describe Matt, but a thousand more would not be sufficient to describe a man so many loved and cared for.
Matt was an educator, podcaster, writer, author, and journalist, but most importantly, a father to two children who he never stopped bragging about — Emery, 18, a freshman at Xavier University, and Lily, 15, a sophomore at Newtown High School — and husband to Alyssa, the love of his life. He never tired of proudly telling others that he met Alyssa while working at the Golden Bear Dariette. They started dating in May of 1996 and married on August 5, 2000. They recently celebrated their twenty-second anniversary.
Matt was born November 21, 1975, in Piqua, Ohio, the son of Linda Eloise (McEowen) Phillips and Evan Richard Tullis. He graduated from Waynedale High School, where he played baseball and was the president of the FFA, worked his way through college, graduated from Ashland University with a degree in English and Journalism, then earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington before returning to Ohio where he worked as a reporter for the Wooster Daily Record and the Columbus Dispatch, where he created the award-winning feature obituary series, An Ohio Life. Matt then entered academia, becoming a professor, first at Ashland University before joining the faculty of Fairfield University, where he became the director of the Digital Journalism program, the co-director of the Sports Media program, and the associate director of the Integrated Media Labs.
But those are just details of a life. They don’t really tell you much about who Matt really was. In 1991, when Matt was 15 years old, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and underwent a grueling two-year series of chemo and radiation therapy. He got better, but the ordeal would mark the remainder of his life, not for his own personal suffering, but for the empathy it inspired within him toward others, particularly the nurses, doctors, and fellow patients who shared his journey. He never forgot them. That experience, and his desire to write about it, is what led him to pursue narrative journalism.
That story took a long time coming. Matt freelanced for a wide variety of publications — trade magazines, Ohio Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine among them — working on his craft while teaching journalism at Ashland and serving as faculty advisor for the student newspaper and mentoring young journalists, many long after they graduated.
Matt always knew that the treatments that had cured him might one day cause additional health problems, and it was his desire to become as healthy as possible that led him to begin running more than a decade ago, as he later wrote, “because I would like to live long enough to see my two kids ... become adults.” He soon learned, as most runners do, that in addition to the physical benefits, running gives a person time to think. And it was while running that Matt discovered how to tell the story he always wanted to write. As he ran, his mind would drift back to his days as a cancer patient and he began to realize that while he ran, he was never alone — he was accompanied by the memories of all the people he met while he was hospitalized.
He realized that the best way to write about his experience was not to write about himself, but the others, the ghosts he now ran with. That first became a story that brought widespread attention and acclaim, and eventually became a book, Running with Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer, one that has touched the lives of everyone fortunate enough to read it.
But it didn’t stop there. Matt spent much of the rest of his life running — not so much for himself, but for others, competing in charity runs of all kinds, raising money to help others, even as his academic and writing career flourished. He wrote a number of unforgettable stories lauded by fellow writers, often finding stories others would overlook, a profile of a professional horseshoe player, a girls’ high school basketball rivalry in rural Ohio, and the Cleveland Brown’s sometimes comical, never-ending search for a decent quarterback. He started Gangrey: the Podcast, a long-running and highly admired series of interviews with writers he admired about their craft, becoming a trusted and admired confidant to many. He helped design writing workshops, attended literary and writing conferences, served as an associate editor for a literary magazine, River Teeth, and wrote about various aspects of narrative journalism for the prestigious Nieman Storyboard of Harvard University. He had recently started work on his second book, on writing, built around the interviews he had conducted on his podcast, passing along what he had learned to others.
It would have been easy for someone so accomplished to become self-centered, but with Matt the opposite was true. Nothing was more important to him than those he cared about. He was an active member of the Vertical Runner running group in Wooster, Ohio, as well as the Northeast Ohio chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. Alyssa called him “the best at being an incredible hands-on Dad.” He loved sports and spent hours on the field coaching Lily’s softball team and catching for her as she learned to pitch, cherishing every bruise. He attended every basketball game, cross country meet, track meet, and ultimate frisbee game of Emery’s. They loved watching sports together and playing basketball in the driveway even as Emery grew to tower above his father. As an educator, Matt took great pride in the accomplishments of his students. He loved hosting events for them at his home and was known not just for his commitment to journalism, but also for always being supportive and approachable.
After moving to Newtown he became heavily involved in the local running community and supported Dylan’s Wings of Change through multiple Ragnar races. He also enjoyed building trails and a fire-pit in the woods behind his house, having the occasional beer or rum and Coke or two with his friends, watching Jeopardy, rooting for the Cubs and the Steelers, winning at Wordle (even after his surgery!), going on trips with his family, and telling absolutely everyone he met how proud he was of his family and how much he loved Alyssa and the kids.
Everyone who knew Matt could not help but notice the tattoo he proudly displayed on his arm, a quote from the writer Tim O’Brien that read, “Stories can save us.” He believed that with all his heart and now, after his passing, that is what will sustain all those who loved and cared for him: the stories he wrote, the stories he loved, and the stories about Matt we will all share with each other. He will be deeply missed.
Matt is survived by his wife Alyssa, son Emery, and daughter Lily; his parents, Elly and Rick (Lisa); his brothers, John Tullis and Jim Gianoglio; his sister-in-law, Pam; and seven nieces and nephews (Tori, Ian, Chloe, Parker, Sophia, Will, and Isabel); and a vast number of family, friends, runners, readers, colleagues, students, and writers who will continue to share his story.
Calling hours will be held on Saturday, October 1, 2022, at Honan Funeral Home in Newtown, Conn., from 4 to 7 pm. Anyone wishing to lace up their sneakers and join a group run on Sunday morning should meet outside the NYA at Fairfield Hills at 8 am. A celebration of life will follow from 1 to 4 pm at BadSons Beer Company in Derby, Conn.